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Review: ‘Treelogy’ is a sublime, classical ode to California’s redwoods, sequoias and Joshua trees

Don’t ask what trees can do for music. That’s way too obvious. Trees have made music possible, as pretty much most people in the world know. We bless them for giving us so many of our instruments and listening rooms. Would we have recorded music if the wood had not been used to make speaker cabinets?

“Treelogy: A Musical Portrait of California’s Redwood, Sequoia and Joshua Trees” features three new “tree” pieces by California composers. Given their first performances at the Soraya on Thursday night, the works instead wonder what music can do for trees. They arrive at a pivotal time, as for the first time in their centuries-old lives, many of our state’s enduringly majestic residents are facing an existential threat of wildfires.

We have changed the climate. What now? Can three beautiful pieces of music inspired by trees save our state? Of course not. But the real value of “Treelogy” is subliminal. Trees inspire art. Art serves to raise awareness. Consciousness saves the day.

Trees have always been welcome in classical music. No trees means no leafy spring branches to kick off Vivaldi’s eternal ‘The Four Seasons’. Opera without trees as a backdrop is unthinkable. To turn a mythological nymph into a tree, Richard Strauss ended his opera “Daphne” with a transcendental musical photosynthesis that mimics the mystical thrill of standing under a redwood tree. Do you want to become one with nature? Tie with a tree.

Strauss has a full opera to prepare you for this revelation. Billy Childs, Gabriella Smith and Steven Mackey, each commissioned by the Soraya to write a 25-minute piece for the string ensemble Delirium Musicum, are not given such an opportunity. They weren’t even given program notes, just two-minute Vimeo video introductions linked to a one-page physical or digital program sheet.

The new scores were played in front of large projections of the trees by New York Times photographer Max Whittaker. Otherwise, the pieces would speak for themselves. Had they been heard outside the conceptual umbrella of ‘Treelogy’ and with different titles, the scores wouldn’t exactly scream trees.

But again, we surround ourselves without thinking with the abundance of trees. And for a few hours we thought about trees. That has stayed with me long enough to feel new gratitude for the wooden desk I’m typing on.

children “My roots spread far and wide” makes the communication between his improvising jazz trio and his more formal material for the virtuoso and versatile Delirium strings with ease. Listening to it is as satisfying as tree roots stretching out to different plant species in the forest. However, the piece itself gave the impression of what it felt like to be with a giant sequoia in its own environment. One thing does not necessarily lead to the other in a free-roaming forest.

Billy Childs on the piano at the premiere of his “My Roots Spread Far and Wide” as part of “Treelogy” at the Soraya on Thursday.

(Francine Orr/Los Angeles Times)

When the melodies and rich harmonies of the entire ensemble could be heard as the tribe, Childs dropped the leaves where they might in his complex and surprising piano improvisations. Root-like, the other members of Childs’ trio — Dan Chmielinski on bass and Christian Euman on drums — reached out in their solos, engaging in a contrapuntal sense with various Delirium players.

Gabriella Smith, who will have a major Los Angeles Philharmonic premiere in May, headed to Joshua Tree National Park and recorded the sounds of the ecosystem in which the desert’s namesake trees have long thrived. Her “Desert Ecology,” in five sections, can be compared to 21st century Vivaldi. Like Vivaldi, she herself is a string player and loves sound effects.

The middle section, “Sofia,” for example, begins to sound like a hipster speeding on Twentynine Palms Highway. There’s a thump, thump, thump in the vibrating strings. A Vivaldi-esque pulse turns into something more in the vein of Michael Nyman doing a minimalist version of Purcell. Smith uses microtonal runs to do what bushy Joshua trees do to the landscape, which is to make it weird. It’s like desert winds and dry heat retuning violin strings.

Smith takes seriously not only her trees but also the sound of Delirium’s strings. In her frenzied desert landscape, she shares a joy of place and auditory sensations. This exciting young ensemble is one step ahead, ready for anything. It has a new recording of Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” via Hans Richter and Philip Glass’ “The American Seasons”, due out next month.

from Steve Mackey “Red wood‘ is, as it were, rooted in the way trees transmit life-giving materials underground to maintain the health of the forest. A double concerto for Mackey on electric guitar, violinist and Delirium leader Etienne Gara and strings, it also reflects on the equally impressive phenomenon of fairy rings, the name for the redwoods growing in circles supported by the roots of fallen trees.

In a beautifully conceived score that flows with a sort of natural ease, the guitar electrifies acoustic strings while somehow sharing kinship. Whether or not you hear trees in this, and I don’t, hardly matters. Mackey celebrates how trees make him feel and make you want to feel the same way.

A project from California State University, Northridge, home of the Soraya, “Treelogy,” will travel to the Cal State campuses in Chico and Sonoma on Thursday. However, like our trees, the project needs a long life, starting with a radio broadcast or live stream of one of the performances and then a studio recording. That’s the least we can do for our trees.