His Music Is Here, There, Everywhere


We've heard a lot of Schoenberg this season. But we've heard very little of what he wrought. The composers he taught and influenced ranged from European Modernists to American film composers, from academics to the avant-garde, here and abroad. That legacy was ostensibly left to the CalArts New Century Players, the guest ensemble at the Los Angeles Philharmonic's Green Umbrella Concert on Monday night.

CalArts seemed to get on the bandwagon for a while, beginning the program with works by Earl Kim and John Cage, two of Schoenberg's Los Angeles students. Olga Neuwirth, a 33-year-old avant-garde composer, was selected, however, simply because she is Viennese, as was Schoenberg, and interesting.

Then came Henry Brant, who will turn 90 next year. He had no connection with Schoenberg, but he reminded the audience that he is the second-oldest active American composer of "nonpopular music." Elliott Carter, at 92, is now the oldest, with the death of Leo Ornstein three weeks earlier at age 108 or 109. That, Brant said of Ornstein's longevity, "shows you what an American composer can do if he puts his mind to it."

Brant has the reputation of being something of a kook who has long put his mind to expanding music in space, the more grandiose the better. He is small and feisty and performs in sweat clothes and baseball cap--always color-coordinated and sometimes quite bright--and he likes nothing better than to command large troupes of musicians in vast public spaces, be they cathedrals, public squares or the Amstel River in Amsterdam. Performers stand, sit, move about, float, and each musician or ensemble plays something different. An ingenious contrapuntist, Brant calculates just what music will fit where, and the effect is invariably exhilarating.

In fact, Brant brilliantly transforms any space, large or small, he gets his hands on. "Glossary," which he conducted at Zipper Concert Hall on Monday, was, for him, intimate. A dozen instrumentalists surrounded the audience. Percussion was on the stage, winds along the aisles, strings in back. A mezzo-soprano, Jacqueline Bobak, sang flourishes while roving on high along the parapets above the stage. Her text was based on computer terms and acronyms. Brant conducted in his way, which was cueing performers by making gestures that mimicked the playing of invisible instruments. The piece, a recent one from 2000, lasted about 25 minutes. It was wonderfully well performed and an utter delight.

What does Brant's music sound like? The individual parts are snippets with a little bit of this and a little bit of that. Playful ornamental lines in the winds may be countered by dramatic outbursts in the percussion and soulful chords in the strings, but there is never any competition. Instead, the hall appears to expand its dimensions to contain anything Brant wants to put in it, becoming a joyful universe in which there is room for everybody.

With "Glossary," CalArts demonstrated that it really knows how to put on a concert. And with "Glossary" and all that preceded it, it demonstrated that it really doesn't know how to put on a concert. Brant was relegated to the end of a long evening (he didn't appear until 10:15), after which time half the audience had already left. And although what came before the Brant was worthy, there was generally too little consideration for an audience. The pre-concert talk began 25 minutes late; a necessary close eye was not kept on Brant, who never appeared for that talk; insufficient program notes added mystification rather than clarity.

All this, and the late hour, could wear out all but the most hearty listener. Kim's "Where Grief Slumbers," beautiful and delicate settings of Rimbaud and Apollinaire, were sensitively played and effectively sung by soprano Kati Prescott-Terray, but there were no texts provided, not even titles. Cage's "Sixteen Dances," a transitional work written in 1951 in which the composer began considering the possibility of using chance methods for composition, was originally intended to be a full evening work for Merce Cunningham and three other dancers, based on the Indian philosophy of the emotions. Here it was used as an opportunity for clever and merry choreography by the dance department. Neuwirth's "Hooloomooloo" made an impressive noise and was impressively played, with an electronic piano pulling the ensemble in and out of a specific pitch. David Rosenboom conducted the three works securely and musically (although the Cage wasn't ever steady). But this was two concerts, not one, preventing Brant from getting his full due. However, with a new concert hall and cathedral soon to open downtown, maybe this concert can serve as wake-up call. Brant makes great buildings greater.

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