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Review: Major new works by Steve Reich and George Crumb find two leading American octogenarian composers in magnificent old form

Review: Major new works by Steve Reich and George Crumb find two leading American octogenarian composers in magnificent old form
Masked toy pianist Margaret Leng Tan in the West Coast premiere of Phyllis Chen's 'Curios' at REDCAT Thursday night. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

What with his rhythmic acuity, Steve Reich gives the impression of being a composer who has never missed a beat in his life. So when asked Thursday night in the preconcert talk before the premiere of his Music for Ensemble and Orchestra whether he had written the piece with the Los Angeles Philharmonic in mind, he answered in a split-second heartbeat, “No!”

At 82, Reich hasn’t lost his sense of timing. No, of course, meant yes.

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There was the perfect pause for surprise laughter, the implication being, why would you even ask? Then the explanation that he obviously wants other orchestras to play it, as the London Symphony will at the end of November and the San Francisco Symphony in June. You can bet more will sign up.

But the L.A. Phil did commission the first piece for full orchestra Reich has agreed to write in more than three decades for its centennial season. The L.A. Phil has, moreover, been the orchestra that for those three decades and then some has paid more attention to Reich, orchestra composer or not, than any other. He clearly feels at home with it and in Disney (the Los Angeles Master Chorale has also premiered two Reich choral masterpieces in Disney).

As he also explained, it was while attending an L.A. Phil concert that he got idea that he actually could make a new orchestra piece very much on the lines of the smaller ensemble configurations that suit him best. It was because, he further said, the L.A. Phil was his kind of orchestra; it’s game to try anything.

And if Reich has lost any of his timing as a composer in this breathtakingly beauteous and perfectly pitched work, it is but a very slight fraction. The score says 19 minutes. Susanna Mälkki’s confident performance came in at, by my timing, 18 minutes and 59 seconds. I’d also say by, maybe the second second, you knew only one composer could have written this. Reich is not a composer who, at this point of his celebrated career, needs to reinvent himself. But it is great news to have him back with the orchestra.

By what may seem a coincidence but is more explicable by the fact that Disney increasingly deserves the title Walt Disney “New Music” Concert Hall, “Music for Ensemble and Orchestra” ended just in time to rush downstairs to REDCAT, where pianist Margaret Leng Tan was making her much belated Los Angeles debut with two West Coast premieres. She began with Phyllis Chen’s “Curios” for masked performer, toys and video, but the main attraction for this extraordinary new music specialist was George Crumb’s “Metamorphoses (Book 1).” Just like Reich with orchestra, this the first piano cycle in almost 40 years by another hugely influential octogenarian American composer whose style is so distinctive you recognize it immediately.

That lamentably meant missing Mälkki conduct Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, but it was well worth it. Between 1972 and 1979, Crumb had composed four volumes of his primeval, mystic, night-sky-drenched “Mikrokosmos” series for amplified piano or pianos. It turns out the 89-year-old composer, who finished the first book of this new “Metamorphoses” series last year and is working on a second book, hasn’t missed a beat either.

There isn’t a lot musically, perhaps, to tie Reich and Crumb together other than an utter mastery of their individual art and the ability to hold a listener spellbound. But who needs more than that?

In Reich’s case the model for his new work was Bach’s Fifth Brandenburg Concerto. Like Bach, he pits a smaller ensemble — in this case pairs of pianos and vibraphones, along with pairs of wind, brass and string instruments and a lone electric bass — against a slightly larger string orchestra with no basses.

A theme close in style to a jazz melody starts in on instrument or pair, gets picked up by others in rhythmic counterpoint and a frisson begins. A metaphor for the rhythmic process might be cell division, an aural sense of multiplication producing a life force. That was especially apparent at the end when the orchestra began a kind of vibratory activity in shifting tone colors. The organism was whole and was starting to wiggle away on is own. The effect was brilliant.

This, though, made Chen’s “Curios” a few minutes later all too curious in comparison. Leng Tan appeared masked and started setting loose cute, wriggly wind-up toys. The mask came off, replaced by paper-lantern headdress and then a clown’s nose as Leng Tan let loose a toy-a-rama of kiddie pianos, kiddie psaltery, kiddie pipe organ, bird whistle and other such noise makers .

In an animated video overhead, other toys were up to no good, adding a creepy atmosphere to the proceedings. What saved it was Leng Tan’s ability to bring a sense of magical presence to everything she touches.

In the Crumb piece, "Ten Fantasy-Pieces (after celebrated paintings) for Amplified Piano" — for which the composer responds to famous 20th century paintings — that quality of ritual, however, produced a heady atmosphere. A mysterious nocturnal mood pervaded, be it the strumming in the piano for Paul Klee’s “Black Prince” or Leng Tan’s cawing like a crow to accompany Van Gogh’s “Wheatfield With Crows.”

She played a toy piano with her right hand and her grand piano with her left. She shook various chimes with he left hand and played her grand piano with her right. She hit the piano strings with mallets, plucked them like a lute and whisked them with a wire brush as dimly lighted projections of Whistler, Johns, Dali, Chagall, Gauguin and Kandinsky glowed overhead, each familiar painting became startlingly mysterious. Chagall’s “The Fiddler” was, for instance, no fiddler on the roof but in the cosmos.

There was no need to ask whether Crumb wrote this for Leng Tan. Other pianists will surely be compelled to play it, but no other could be muse for this kind of marvelously transporting ritual.

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♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

Los Angeles Philharmonic

Where: Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 S. Grand Ave.

When: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday

Tickets: $20-$194

Info: (213) 850-2000, laphil.com

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