Times Staff Writer

About 18 months ago, Chapman College in Orange, hardly renowned for adventurism, set upon the bold and potentially risky undertaking of becoming a leading center for contemporary classical music.

And while Chapman is having only modest success so far in attracting the Orange County music audience it wants, the school's commitment to new music remains.

"Orange County is an area which indeed is coming into a very full sense of maturity as a major residential and cultural and artistic center," Chapman President G.T. (Buck) Smith said. "What we're seeing is that the traditional and the avant-garde are able to exist side by side, even in architecture. Why not in music?"

In a real sense, Smith linked his own credibility to the undertaking. The September, 1985, appointment of William Kraft as composer in residence was not made by the music department but by Smith. The appointment of Kraft, a former assistant conductor and composer in residence with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, was but the first signal of Chapman's intentions.

Since then, the college has presented numerous concerts of new music--most recently by the highly respected group Speculum Musicae and by pianist Alan Feinberg. It has formed and played host to a professional Orange County Composers Circle and appointed Donn Laurence Mills, who also conducts the Capistrano Valley Symphony, as director of its music department in September, 1986.

It's still too early to tell if Chapman College's efforts will pay off in terms of the prestige and national--even international--focus that the institution hopes for.

But there is no doubt that the commitment starts at the top with Smith.

The Kraft appointment, Smith said, was part of an overall effort to bolster the undergraduate curriculum, to let music students perform the works of a distinguished and nationally recognized composer and "frankly, to provide a contribution to the Orange County community."

Mills views Kraft's appointment in even grander terms.

"President Smith saw it as an opportunity to bring Chapman more into the international arena experience than it had been before," Mills said.

From the start, Chapman officials knew they were running the risk of alienating audiences: Contemporary classical music has yet to achieve the kind of audience approval accorded Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and others in the great Western musical tradition.

Casting its lot with the work of modern composers whose names are not exactly household words--Milton Babbitt, Gyorgy Ligeti, Mario Davidosky, for instance--Chapman was embracing music techniques that often inspire reactions from bafflement to vigorous hostility.

Acknowledging that Chapman is a "fairly conservative college," Mills said, "You would expect this at Cal (UC Berkeley) or UCLA. But maybe a private college is a better forum to try such things out. There's no red tape and government bureaucracy, so we're not held back.

"And, so far, no one has blown the whistle," he added with a laugh.

According to Mills, "New music will be one of our stronger areas. But we'll put it in perspective. Our (music) students are going to spend the rest of their lives playing Beethoven and Mozart. This may be their only opportunity to get into other areas of music and discover this. Of course, we can't do it all in four years. Or even in a lifetime."

The college currently offers BA degrees in composition, performance and music education. Of about 2,100 students on campus, approximately 100 are music majors (eight in composition). The music department has nine full-time and approximately 30 part-time faculty members.

Plans include creating a tape and music library for the Composers Circle, the installation of a synthesizer laboratory next semester and a broadening of the department's jazz program.

Mills acknowledged strains, however, "in trying to fit a music program into an academic college like this.

"Academic people want to somehow fit music into the philosophy, history and sociology of the time. Terrific. I have no quarrel with that. But in four years, you can't do that and turn out (performing) musicians. Music is a living art."

A large number of music graduates go on to professional careers, Mills said, though often detouring first into graduate schools.

While the Orange County public obviously isn't clamoring yet for new music, Chapman officials aren't despairing. "We didn't draw much of a crowd for Feinberg's recital, only about 150 people," Mills said. "So it's not going to be easy. But, then, I never thought it would be. All you can do is try to challenge people. If you don't try, you won't know. But one ought to try."

Mills acknowledged that part of the problem may be the music itself.

"Not everything in contemporary music qualifies as good music," he said. "A lot of it is intellectual, but not very musical. So partly it's the composer's fault, not the listener's. . . .

"Still, we're always looking for the elusive masterpiece that may come out, or may not. But if it has to be justified from an intellectual point of view, it's not music."

Composer William Kraft refuses to be discouraged.

"We're being sort of successful," he said. "When you get an audience of 150 for new music, you're rather satisfied."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World