Nadia Boulanger was that most improbable sort of musical legend--a teacher. She composed in her early years and established a modest career as a performer and conductor. But it is in the numbers, diversity and prominence of her students that her reputation lives.
Monday evening in the Japan America Theatre, the Los Angeles Philharmonic New Music Group presented a motley program of music by some of her American pupils. Boulanger did not teach a system or style of her own, but rather allowed her students to develop naturally--to the extent that it accorded with her own tastes and sense of discipline.
Rather than a Boulanger "school," her disciples constitute a disparate group of individuals. Most of the music heard Monday was written long after its composers had left Boulanger's tutelage, including two West Coast premieres of pieces composed after she died in 1979.
Elliott Carter's "In Sleep, in Thunder" is an ambitious setting of six poems by Robert Lowell. And for all the typical craft, complexity and earnest energy, the piece is a disappointing one. The wide-ranging solo part--sung with clarity and some high-note discomfort by tenor Robert Swensen--fragments the poetry as it never would be when read. A large, busy ensemble labored industriously under Daniel Kessner's careful baton, but the effect proved too mannered and self-absorbed even to communicate alienation.
"The Ambient Air" by Louise Talma attempts less and achieves more, at least in terms of immediate aural gratification. It depicts various atmospheric phenomena in four short movements for flute, violin, cello and piano. Much of the imagery is predictable, but the pacing is taut and the scoring sophisticated.
Roy Harris wrote his Concerto for Piano, Clarinet and String Quartet while in Paris, with Boulanger playing the piano part in the premiere. Though not as overtly nationalistic as his most characteristic music, it clearly bears his highly personal impress. The string playing sounded under-rehearsed, but pianist Johana Harris-Heggie and clarinetist Lorin Levee provided punch and panache in the solo parts.
Robert Rodriguez found an intriguing double-perspective narrative technique to tell part of the Francesca da Rimini story in his "Canto." His severe, atonal style and the high tessitura of the voice parts imparted an excessively tormented quality, however. Swensen and soprano Su Harmon coped bravely, and Kessner kept the efforts of the supporting ensemble precise and balanced.
The proceedings began with an arrangement of Copland's "Quiet City." Trumpeter Donald Green, English hornist Robert Cowart and pianist Zita Carno clothed this modest little mood piece in darkly hued, plush sonic velvet.