The Pleasure of Their Company

Stuart Cohn is an occasional contributor to Calendar

'Xtet is . . . a hobby, less compulsive than stamp collecting, but a lot more chaotic." That's how cellist Roger Lebow once defined the group in program notes for the Monday Evening Concerts series at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Now, as the eclectic chamber ensemble begins its second decade with a LACMA appearance Monday night, the description still applies. The group plays maybe four or five shows a year, doesn't tour, has never left California, but it survives, glued together by the kinship of its members and their desire to play exactly what they want.

Xtet pushes no ideology and claims no leader. It shies away from electronics and the more "downtown" form of experimentation, but that doesn't mean it won't do a piece that uses tape loops, or that it says no to Minimalism. It tends to avoid European and East Coast academic music, yet it plans soon to perform a work by Anton Webern, one of the Viennese progenitors of that generally difficult style. It's essentially a new music ensemble, but it dips backward through the century to early modernism, and it has been known to venture into the 19th century as well.

Percussionist David Johnson, sitting at the dining room table in his Eagle Rock house with two other X-ers, says the ensemble may consciously resist categorization, but over the years it has also found itself inevitably tilting toward late 20th century composition. "This is an exciting, eclectic time," he explains, "where barriers are being broken down."

"We try to think of ourselves as a chamber music group more than a particular style group," says bassoonist John Steinmetz. "We're all involved in other projects that are taking care of the standard repertory, so we don't need to compete with string quartets. Where we can make contributions is mostly in newer things, pieces from throughout this century that we really like that maybe haven't gotten heard that much."

It's pianist Vicki Ray, though, who cuts to the chase. "Basically," she says with a laugh, "we just really like to play together."

First, the name. The "X" is mathematical shorthand for a variable--proving that fluidity at every level has been the group's raison d'etre from the get-go.

Currently, Xtet has 11 core members. The roster, which ranges in age from 38 to 48, contains eight founding members, but the group expands or contracts depending on the pieces it's performing. Besides Lebow, Johnson, Ray and Steinmetz, the basic lineup now includes Gary Woodward, flutes; Emily Bernstein, clarinets; JoAnn Turovsky, harp; Gloria Cheng, piano; Elizabeth Baker, violin; Kazi Pitelka, viola; and conductor Donald Crockett. For Monday night, the lineup will be expanded by four: Jacqui Bobak, soprano; David Washburn, trumpet; Steven Williams, trombone; and Bruce Morgenthaler, double bass.

The group is a labor of love. Xtet's players all have other primary jobs; they play with the L.A. Philharmonic, the L.A. Opera Orchestra, L.A. Chamber Orchestra and the Long Beach Symphony; several are session players for movie scores; others teach at CalArts and USC.

The ensemble formed in the mid-'80s when Steinmetz and clarinetist-composer David Ocker (who has since left the group) decided they wanted an outlet to play chamber music. Other local musicians got wind of it, and Xtet emerged over raucous meals at Chinese and Thai restaurants in Los Feliz and Silver Lake. Its first performance was a concert featuring Schoenberg's "Pierrot Lunaire" at West L.A. College in 1986.

The group's early repertory concentrated on chamber music with soprano, including such staples as Lukas Foss' "Time Cycle" and Luciano Berio's "Folk Songs." Xtet has since gone on to commission works from composers such as Steven Stucky (recently new music advisor to the Philharmonic), Arthur Jarvinen (pianist Ray's colleague in the California E.A.R. Unit), Donald Davis, Stephen Hartke, Ocker and Crockett, all of whom created short pieces for Xtet's 10th anniversary concert at LACMA last season.

As for Monday night's program, it's typical, variable Xtet. There are nods to jazz and pop culture, a revival of a modern work from earlier in the century and a new piece, "Still Life After Death," by the hot border-busting composer Chinary Ung, a native of Cambodia who teaches at UC San Diego. Ung's works have been described as a merger of East and West, uniting many of the sounds of traditional Asian music with contemporary Western structure and instrumentation. "Still Life After Death" is scored for flute, clarinet, cello, violin, percussion, piano and voice, with the soprano wearing white face and singing a wordless text.

The concert will close with Minnesota composer Michael Daugherty's "Dead Elvis" for clarinet, bassoon, trumpet, trombone, violin, double bass and percussion. The piece recasts the plainsong "Dies Irae," taken from a 13th century Requiem Mass, as a rock 'n' roll ballad in 6/8 time and a '50s R&B; tune, with a quote or two from the King's music. It's both carefully orchestrated and seriously wacky.

"[Daugherty's] got a drum set in there with all the wrong equipment," Steinmetz explains, "[so the percussionist is] trying to play this hard-driving rock 'n' roll with bongos instead of tom-toms. It ends up sounding twisted, like the airline lost most of his gear and he's trying to make do."

In between, there's "King of the Sun" by USC professor Stephen Hartke, for piano and string trio, which, like "Dead Elvis," combines medieval and jazz influences; Arizona composer Glenn Hackbarth's "Passages," for piano, percussion and tape; and the Czech composer Bohuslav Martinu's 1927 "La Revue de Cuisine," the score to a ballet that depicts love affairs among kitchen utensils and includes "a hilarious tango with a rose-in-the-teeth cello solo," Steinmetz says.

Along with general new music eclecticism, the governing factor in programming such as this is sheer entertainment value, for the players and for the audience. Xtet comes from a generation of classical musicians who grew up steeped in jazz, rock and rhythmically driven forms of world music, and they tend to steer clear of 20th century compositions whose success is inversely proportional to their accessibility.

During the late '60s and early '70s, when most of the Xtet members received their training, the complex, atonal and almost mathematically -inspired serialism of Milton Babbitt and his followers dominated what was considered serious, ground-breaking concert music. But, like a lot of other ideas at the time, this kind of composition was being challenged in and out of academia, generally because it turned off a lot of listeners.

"We grew up musically in a world where there was already way more diversity," says Steinmetz, who, like Johnson, is a graduate of CalArts, "and, gradually, the public has realized that these changes have happened. Today, there's less concern about securing the future of music and more concern about doing things that can be really enjoyed and are nourishing right now."

In its 10 years on the scene, most observers think that Xtet has done its part in challenging and nurturing an audience for new music. The Times' Josef Woodard has called its programming choices bright and attractive, and, not surprising with new music, occasionally alienating. "A group well worth the applause, and another 10 years," he wrote in his review of their anniversary concert.

"Xtet are excellent performers," says Dorrance Stalvey, music director of LACMA, which is one of the area's leading contemporary music promoters, along with the Philharmonic, sponsor of the Green Umbrella series. "The best service to new music--besides open ears on the part of the audience--is an excellent performance."

For the group's members, though, such reaction remains mere icing on the cake. Xtet is still, in Johnson's words, "basically an excuse to hang out with each other. That's always been [our] thrust. We used to have meetings a lot and talk about where this group is going and it always came down to let's have a party, let's play some music."


XTET, Bing Theater, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 5905 Wilshire Blvd. Date: Monday, 8 p.m. Prices: $6-$15. Phone: (213) 857-6010.

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