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New Music Group Sparkles in Eclectic Pacific Rim Program

TIMES MUSIC CRITIC

As the latest Grammys, with its nearly 100 categories demonstrated, each of us wants our own specific music that speaks of individual place, time, culture, concerns. Music is porous, as ready to hybridize as nature, but we are less so.

So how to speak of the music of the Pacific Rim, as the Los Angeles Philharmonic New Music Group, conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen, attempted Monday night in its Green Umbrella series at the Japan America Theatre? Five works were programmed. Five very different Pacific Rim experiences were represented.

First was a brief work, “8 x Radio” by Silvestre Revueltas, the great Mexican composer who died in 1940 but who is just now on the verge of wide recognition, a recognition that, I hope, becomes a fad (and maybe will with the release Monday on Sony Classical of a spectacular Revueltas disc by Salonen and the Philharmonic). In the concert program notes, Steven Stucky described the effect of this mysteriously titled work (eight minutes of radio music or radio music for eight?) as “a kind of Cubist mariachi band.” It is street music with wrong notes and Stravinskyan rhythms imported from Paris, making it an ideal musical complement to the Mexican artists of the time, Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo.

Next, Leon Kirchner, a composer who grew up in Los Angeles in the ‘30s, at the time Revueltas was composing, and who had a similar musical background to his Los Angeles contemporary John Cage (same piano teacher, Richard Bulig; same composition teacher, Arnold Schoenberg). But Kirchner, who celebrated his 80th birthday in January, never left the Expressionist world of Alban Berg in his music, and, for nearly 40 years he has been a Harvard mainstay (where he was mentor to the likes of John Adams and Yo-Yo Ma). His Two Duos from 1988, played with dramatic thrust and bold tone by violinist Mark Kashper and cellist Ronald Leonard, are like a Hollywood period film: The accent is American, but the setting is Vienna in another era.

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Two new pieces evoked two new worlds. Gerald Levinson’s long, rambling “Time and the Bell . . .” reveals an East Coast composer, trained by Messiaen and infatuated with Bali. It is music that does not so much look toward Asia as simply go there. The metallic sounds of a Balinese gamelan are imitated by trios of strings, winds and percussion (with a daunting piano part played grippingly by Gloria Cheng-Cochran), and other sounds are of Messiaen’s bird calls.

William Kraft, on the other hand, is a composer, percussionist and conductor from Chicago, who spent 26 years with the Los Angeles Philharmonic functioning in all those capacities and is by now a thoroughly assimilated Californian. His “Encounters XI: The Demise of Suriyodhaya,” commissioned by the Philharmonic and given its world premiere Monday, is dedicated to the late Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu and 81-year-old Californian Lou Harrison, perhaps the two composers most successful in the creation of a one-world Pacific Rim music.

Although Kraft’s 20-minute score for English horn (Carolyn Hove) and percussion (Raynor Carroll) has a poetic program based upon Thai legend, its enchantment is in its sound. The percussionist stands in a cage of nipple gongs that ring wonderfully and seem to make silent comment even when Carroll (an elegant and unusually understated percussionist) is busy with vibraphone or drums. Hove’s music, lyrical and dramatic, moves in and out of song, and she was compelling.

The last piece, John Adams’ Chamber Symphony from 1992, is yet another California experience rendered by a transported New Englander who has thrown off decorum. Cartoon music brushes against Schoenberg as it did in the Los Angeles of the ‘40s; it does so here with fantastic virtuosity and originality. The piece is a New Music Group standard. Salonen’s command of its rhythmic and textural complexities is breathtaking and Martin Chalifour’s violin solo in the last movement, staggering.

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