The geographically sorted sampler is a common pro gramming rationale in contemporary music. Where repertory often seems chosen principally to keep the stage crew busy, titles like the classic “Music From Both Sides of the Atlantic” give an illusion of purpose.
The Los Angeles Philharmonic New Music Group offered another such program Monday night at the Japan America Theatre. Probably to nobody’s surprise, “Music From the Midwest” turned out to be by male academics, representing the universities of Michigan, Indiana and Illinois.
Innocuous introductions by series director John Harbison gave no cause to believe that a compositional force peculiar to the region would be evident. The music, at least, proved strong and vibrant.
If not exactly the brave new world of microtones that Harbison touted, John Eaton’s song cycle “Ars Poetica” is full of interesting new sounds in the accompaniment. More important, he deploys those sounds to expressive purpose.
Eaton cut the overwrought, text-fracturing vocal line, however, from common cloth. The word painting, the wide leaps, the phonetic division of words and the histrionic melismas rendered Yeats’ poetry into little units of ritual passion.
Mezzo-soprano Nelda Nelson, Eaton’s wife, sang capably, with heavy drama and a wide vibrato. Conductor Daniel Kessner elicited tight, supportive ensemble work from flutist Diane Alancraig, harpist Lou Anne Neill and cellist Daniel Rothmuller in the West Coast premiere of the piece.
Kessner persuaded a larger ensemble to play with equal flair and precision in Salvatore Martirano’s “Thrown.” Composed for the 1984 Olympic Arts Festival, “Thrown” alludes to jazz, Sousa, Stravinsky and Schoenberg while maintaining its own slightly chaotic identity.
The structural blocks of “Thrown” are clearly articulated, but it is most stimulating in its virtuoso instrumental interplay. Alancraig, clarinetist Lorin Levee, trumpeter Mario Guarneri, trombonist Ralph Sauer, bass trombonist Donald Waldrop and percussionist Mitchell Peters gave it a bravura account, well focused by Kessner.
Instrumental brilliance, within the traditional parameter of nimble fingers and bows, also proved the principal attraction of Fred Lerdahl’s “Waltzes.” These 12 varied dances are as tonal and accessible as promised, though not the sort of thing to inspire anyone to try out the box step they learned at Cotillion.
There is considerable nostalgic sentiment in the slower Waltzes, as well as dizzying perpetual motion in the up-tempo numbers. Violinist Mark Kashper, violist Dale Hikawa, Rothmuller and bassist Dennis Trembly provided a light, nicely balanced reading of this entertainment.
William Albright’s serious “Sphaera” was entrusted to the ever-authoritative hands of pianist Zita Carno, backed by a multi-channel, computer-generated tape. Albright intends a spiritual element to the work, but his referents are either too abstract or too personal to be easily heard.
The taped sounds emanating from the four corners of the hall add the “superhuman” dimension the composer called for without elevating the music above a moody soundscape. Carno handled her orotund part easily, including modest inside-the-piano manipulations.