Critic's Notebook

L.A.'s rich tradition of new music carries on

Mark Swed
Contact ReporterLos Angeles Times Music Critic
Monday Evening Concerts, at 76, is the oldest new music series in the country

Just as Hollywood stars are asked not to age, Los Angeles seems as though it will never lose its reputation as a town without a past. We came on the scene late culturally and believe ourselves always capable of reinvention. Tradition? That's so "Fiddler on the Roof."

In the last few months we have celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion and Los Angeles County Museum of Art. They are new kids on the block compared with, say, New York's Carnegie Hall and Metropolitan Museum of Art, which are respectively 74 and 93 years older. The Los Angeles Philharmonic, which turns 100 in 2019, is the youngest of the major American orchestras, so, of course, it can still kick up its heels and innovate.

But we fool ourselves with our cultural amnesia. We do have a history. Earlier this month, America's oldest chamber music association, the Coleman, just finished its 110th season — in Pasadena! This week concerts Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday at the Colburn School, REDCAT and LACMA reminded us that the 76-year-old Monday Evening Concerts is the oldest new music series in America, and maybe anywhere. Even "Fiddler" is only 50.

Our "tradition," however, is the new. The Monday Evening Concerts began in 1939 as Evenings on the Roof with an all-Bartók program in a small studio designed by Richard Neutra atop a modest Silver Lake house. Programs devoted to Ives and Schoenberg soon followed. Everybody who was everybody in the L.A. music scene attended, including L.A. Phil music director Otto Klemperer. Pianist Leonard Stein, who would later found Piano Spheres, was a participant from the beginning in what would become America's premier new music series.

The new LACMA invited Monday Evening Concerts to be its resident ensemble. And on March 26, 1965, the museum opened its doors to the public for the first time with an MEC concert that included the premiere of Pierre Boulez's "Eclat," commissioned for the occasion and conducted by the composer on his 40th birthday.

The series continued to make music history in the Bing Theater for four decades, but the 50th anniversary celebrations of LACMA haven't made much of March 26. The day when much of the music world was celebrating Pierre Boulez's 90th birthday was quiet time at the museum.

A decade ago, the museum downsized its performance series and stopped supporting Monday Evening Concerts, which now performs in Zipper Concert Hall. But the museum couldn't put off its acknowledgment of the series forever, and Wednesday night, in its Art & Music series, it celebrated LACMA's 50 years with an L.A.-centric program. Included were performances of Schoenberg's 1949 Phantasy for violin and piano, and Stravinsky's 1953 Septet, which Stravinsky had been inspired to write, the year after Schoenberg's death, after hearing a MEC Schoenberg program.

But what made this program seem remarkable was how — coming on the heels of the final Monday Evening concert of the series' 75th season, Monday night and Piano Spheres Tuesday — it reminded us of our history.

Curiously, the Monday concert was the least illuminating of the three events, but for all the right reasons. The series continues with its original exploratory mission. The program was devoted to Lewis Nielson, a composer who teaches at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music. His String Quartet No. 2: "Verge (remember)" received its first performance; "Herzplatten" for percussion, flute and voice and "Axis (sandman)" for string quintet and percussion were L.A. premieres.

Nielson has an ear for arresting sounds and he inspired terrific performances from the Formalist Quartet, percussionist Jonathan Hepfer and flutist-vocalist Alice Teyssier. But it was hard to know what Nielson was up to most of the time. His program notes read like attempts at obfuscation. At all times, there was the implication that something deep was happening but that is for academics, not an audience, to know.

Piano Spheres' program the next night at REDCAT introduced a young pianist, Nic Gerpe, who was, in contrast, wonderfully illuminating. His tone is crystalline. His technique is dazzlingly fluid. His program was starry and mystical, with Karol Szymanowski's dangerously sensual approach to Greek myth in "Métopes" to the first astrological volume of George Crumb's "Makrokosmos" to the premiere of Juhi Bensal's shimmering "Land of Waking Dreams."

LACMA's Wednesday program only sideswiped the Monday Evening Concerts, but it usefully harked back to such overlooked aspects of the series as its investigation of little-known early music and its connection with film composers. Stravinsky's Septet, given a lively performance by Xtet, is based on Baroque forms. Schoenberg's Phantasy, played with engrossing expressivity by violinist Martin Chalifour and pianist Gavin Martin, has the dreamlike quality of a film montage.

That was also the likely motivation for including two of today's best-known L.A. composers, Morten Lauridsen and David Newman. The Angel City Choral offered warm performances of Lauridsen's "O Magnum Mysterium" and "Sure on This Shining Night," which have the essence of old music made shiningly new. Newman's "Renascence," sung by his daughter, Diana Newman, is the latest in a long line of concert works by Hollywood's best film composers — yet another Hollywood tradition.

Twitter: @markswed

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