Good old George Frideric Handel (a k a Georg Friedrich Haendel) celebrates his 300th birthday on Feb. 23. The Los Angeles Philharmonic is, for some strange reason, ignoring the milestone. The Monday Evening Concerts, however, paid homage at the Bing Theater of the County Museum of Art this week, after a fashion.
The fashion entailed nice performances of two quirky yet engaging examples of Handel trivia, juxtaposed with five diverse demonstrations of unrelated modernism from England and America.
The anonymous Monday Evening program annotator, who on this occasion must win all prizes for illiterate gobbledygook, justified the incoherent programming by stressing life. The Handel offerings, we were informed, represented "living examples of the man and his time, quite at home in the musical company of living composers."
Let's see. That means Handel's Overture in D (an odd but pretty trio for clarinets and horn) and his Trio Sonata for flute, violin and continuo (an awkward memento of 1706) are natural program mates for "Crying the Laughing and Golden," a faintly amusing avant-gardish electronic collage by Anna Rubin (born in 1946); for a semi-arbitrary contrapuntal exeriment by Harrison Birtwistle (born 1934); for an almost romantic horn piece by Shulamit Ran (an ex-Israeli born in 1949); for a stark, convoluted cello sonata by the young George Crumb (born 1929), and for a would-be scherzo/tone-poem about insects by Anthony Payne (born 1936).
The Monday Evening Concerts mean so well, try so hard, care so much. Only an ogre, the apologists remind us, would constantly complain about the arbitrariness of repertory selection and the fluctuations in performance quality. Unfortunately, the series seems to have alienated its own audience. This week, the 600-seat hall must have yawned with 500 empty seats. Something, obviously, is wrong.
The latest sonic smorgasbord did, of course, offer some engaging morsels. Birtwistle's "Pulse Sampler" sustained tension with the strict clicking of M.B. Gordy's claves in conjunction with the random tootling of David Sherr's oboe. Ran's "A Prayer" made dramatic, even climactic, use of Richard Todd's solo horn in neat textural explorations embellished by winds and punctuated by timpani. The introspective agonies of Crumb's Sonata found a splendid champion in David Speltz.
Leading a six-piece ensemble, Rhonda Kess attended gently and sweetly to the assorted pianissimo buzzings, hummings and trillings of the short-lived protagonist in Anthony Payne's "A Day in the Life of a Mayfly."
The obligations of the Handel curios were met honorably by David Atkins, Julian Spear and Todd, who officiated at the fanfare festival of the D-major Overture; and by Ann La Berge, Peter Kent, Delores Stevens and Roger Lebow, who tried valiantly to make the rough edges plain in the Trio Sonata. (Hallelujah.)
Dorrance Stalvey, the long-suffering Monday Evening impresario, attempted to give this uneven evening of esoterica a sense of visual continuity by projecting a few abstract images on a screen behind the players. A sense of musical continuity would have been even more welcome.
So, for that matter, would a sense of musical substance.