The Brooklyn Festival, a week-long celebration of the new music scene from New York City’s “most dynamic borough”, was launched on Tuesday 16 April with a Green Umbrella concert at Walt Disney Hall in Los Angeles.

Interestingly enough, the festival came hard on the heels of another festival which ended Sunday, the Hear Now Music Festival. A smaller-scale affair focusing exclusively on chamber works, the Hear Now Festival promoted the music of Southern California composers. All of them are exceptional; a handful of them are among the very best composing anywhere in the world today. So it’s odd, then, and a little frustrating to see the Hear Now group having to scour funds online to mount their modest festival, while the Brooklyn Festival enjoys the lavish backing of establishment entities like the Los Angeles Philharmonic. The message seems to be pretty clear.

So what about the music?

The composers on the program – Samuel Adams, Matt Marks, and Tyondai Braxton – had little in common aside from a shared vision of seeking to blur the boundaries between “classical” and “pop” music.

Adams’ Tension Studies – which sounded something like the opening bars of Alban Berg’s Three Orchestral Pieces meets Brian Eno by way of late-1990s ambient chill-out – formed seductive, gauzy sonic tapestries that emerged stealthily from the still ongoing chatter of the Disney Hall audience, groping for forms that always managed to elude its grasp.

The closing item on the program, Braxton’s Central Market, was the standout piece. It was a twitching, galumphing monster of a piece that seemed well-fed on H.K. Gruber, Klasky-Csupo cartoons, John Zorn, Danny Elfman, and Igor Stravinsky’s Petrushka alike; a wild Švankmajeresque beast bounding with unstoppable energy. Amplifying the giddily off-kilter strut of the piece was the composer’s creative use of vocalists and a group of electric guitars. From the he drew sometimes wild, sometimes slinky sound colors. Braxton is a composer to watch; one that speaks in his own voice – a very brash and bright one. 

Marks’ Strip Mall, which was sandwiched in the middle of the concert, was – to put in a way its composer may better understand – an “epic fail”. Despite Marks’ claim that his theater piece is “an exploration of various genres”, the music never strays far from the formula of generic contemporary Broadway musical à la Rent. The worst part was the libretto by Royce Vavrek. Its smug, cutesy, and all-too-obvious observations about suburbia – spiked with a few expletives no doubt to keep things “edgy” – wore out its welcome fast. Is this what passes for trenchant and witty social commentary in New York these days?

Of the singers, Timur Bekbosunov,  a brilliant tenor and advocate of contemporary music, did his best to salvage the piece. His ringing top register and intelligent word painting provided some rare pockets of relief. Likewise, the Los Angeles Philharmonic New Music Group had the full measure of the score.

Marks wrote in his program noted that he wanted to create in Strip Mall a work that was entertaining, funny, “and a little sad”. He stumbled on the first two, but he managed to get that last part right. Strip Mall is pretty sad. Just not for the reason its composer and librettist intended.