The first portion of harpist Joanna Newsom’s set was dedicated to a complete reading of 2006’s “Ys,” the masterful arrangements by Van Dyke Parks given a lush treatment by a 28-piece orchestra lead by Sean O’Loughlin. From the menacing strains of concert-opener “Emily,” to the kaleidoscopic patches of Americana found within “Monkey & Bear,” up through the dizzying finale, “Cosmia,” Newsom commanded the audience’s unflinching attention. “Ys” and its performance at Walt Disney Concert Hall is one of those events or happenings in a generation that simply breaks free from the strictures of time and, with near-immediate precision, injects the arts with a vital new mode of thought and expression.
As her tiny arms pulsated and plucked a massive wood-carved harp, her once rough-hewn voice warmly surrounded each complex lyrical turn of phrase. She contorted her face and quivered, rattling her body as if to shake forth all of the songs’ allegorical complexity, creating an almost transcendent form of communication with the audience. With songs as densely worded and musically demanding as the ones found on “Ys” (the compositions average roughly 11 minutes in length), the concert hall setting provided an ideal environment from which to individually digest the music’s labyrinthine construction.
In the coming years, 15-minute tone poems will probably not become the era-defining trend in pop music, but “Ys,” with its depth and musical splendor, will doubtlessly be marveled at well into the future.
An intermission followed the conclusion of “Ys” and the performance’s second segment consisted of brilliant reinterpretations of older material as well as a solo rendition of one untitled new song. A trio of additional musicians, lovingly referred to as the Ys Street Band, supported Newsom for both sets and added carefully chosen musical footnotes to each composition — most exquisitely on songs from her debut “The Milk-Eyed Mender.”