An Old-Fashioned Composer Goes in Search of Beauty : Music: Donald Crockett, the L.A. Chamber Orchestra's composer in residence, says he's moving away from 'the highly complicated music of my teachers' generation.'


Donald Crockett is a rare animal. He is a nationally recognized, prize-winning classical-music composer, born, bred, schooled and now employed--as composer in residence with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra and professor of composition at USC--all here in Southern California.

That background alone partly explains his unusual and individual direction as a composer, his freedom from East Coast system. He talks about such old-fashioned musical concerns as harmonic progression, melody, tonality, clarity, lyricism and, rather remarkably, beauty.

"One of my chief pleasures in composing music that I want to hear, and also in hearing music of other composers that I love, is the beauty of sound per se," says the composer, who in his fourth year with the L.A. Chamber Orchestra has completed his third work for the group, "Roethke Preludes," receiving its world premiere tonight at Ambassador Auditorium under Christof Perick.

"I am interested in the kind of music where the sonority is both beguiling but also profound in a way. I like music that does have real substance, but I like music with a kind of surface elegance and beauty at the same time."

In this he feels a direct link to Igor Stravinsky, a composer who spent a good part of his life in Los Angeles. Crockett, 43, says he believes the sunny climate and way of life here have made themselves felt in his own music, but leaves it to the listener to discover particular manifestations.

Crockett's music is garnering increasing and important attention. His string quartets have been commissioned and/or played by the Kronos, Arditti and Stanford string quartets. His chamber work "Celestial Mechanics" (recorded on a CRI compact disc) took the second prize in the 1991 Kennedy Center Friedheim Awards, and "Antiphonies" won the Music in the Mountains Orchestral Competition in 1993. Last year he was awarded a Goddard Lieberson Fellowship from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

Like many of the composer's other works, "Roethke Preludes," in six movements and about 16 minutes long, is inspired by poetry. Crockett's wife, pianist Vicki Ray, introduced him to Roethke's writing and, responding strongly to the poet's love of nature and lyrical bent, the composer "decided to hunt for some fragments to use literally as springboards for the (music)." "So, (for instance), when I came to the phrase 'tethered to another moon,' I decided I was going to write a movement with that as the title. So, in 'Tethered to Another Moon' I do have the high strings, the violins, sitting way up in the high register, and I make the (rest of) the orchestra continually try and reach that point."


Crockett's description might make his music sound a bit quaint, but it most assuredly isn't. Though he shows a willingness to break out into lyrical melody, he balances this with acerbic harmonies, driving, syncopated rhythm, etched textures and dissonant counterpoint.

"I view my music as a kind of mainstream, late-20th-Century, eclectic music," he says. "And eclectic in the best sense, for me anyway. The idea is that I feel free to draw from a lot of different musics, including popular, hard-core modernism, minimalism and folk music." Crockett's influences stretch from Renaissance polyphonists to Beethoven, Brahms, Britten, Bartok, Copland, Berio, Ligeti and Reich.

"I do have parts of my pieces that are quite grating and complex, and I go with it. But I bear in mind (balance). My personal influence is Beethoven--in his music you have an alteration of very thorny, complicated music, and then he lightens up. . .and you hear it very clearly.

"I am one of those composers who is definitely moving away from the international avant-garde of the '50s, '60s and early '70s, the highly complicated music of my teachers' generation. And I think for those composers my music is too direct. Too simple."

Crockett says he is "addressing the listener who is willing to listen carefully, who loves music and for whom the chance of being transformed by a musical experience is always there--as it is for me."

"I've thought about this: I really try to communicate to one listener at a time, I don't think of a mass audience at all," he says. "If I'm composing a piece I'm hoping that someone will listen to that piece and go, 'Yeah, that really affects me strongly, that might even change my life.' Music has certainly done that for me. And I always feel like I have this connection with the composer, whether it's Brahms or Britten."

* L.A. Chamber Orchestra, Christof Perick, conductor; Ambassador Auditorium, 300 W. Green St., Pasadena, (213) 622-7001. "Roethke Preludes" (Crockett); Symphony No. 1 (Beethoven); Incidental music to "A Midsummer Night's Dream" (Mendelssohn). 8 tonight. Also, Friday, 8 p.m., Wadsworth Theater, Westwood. $29-$36.

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