Over its 17-year life, the fine and malleable new-music-minded ensemble Xtet has been more than a lurking presence on the performance scene but less than a steady one. The advent of its first residency at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, a three-concert series that began Wednesday, promises more continuity in public and a well-deserved opportunity to flex its agenda.
That agenda involves the usual new-music business of giving premieres, but also tapping the annals of 20th century music. Wednesday's concert filled the bill nicely, with the U.S. premiere of Christina Viola Oorebeek's "temptations of the beat, number one," but also Mary Ellen Childs' 1986 "Still Life," an anything but still, dance-like work for three percussionists.
For history's sake, they dusted off Henry Cowell's enticing pre-Minimalist String Quartet No. 4 ("United Quartet"), circa 1936, and Luciano Berio's sonorous, lightly salted "Folk Songs." Overall, the program was an easy-does-it affair, whose most atonal and arrhythmic moments came from Oorebeek's work, for three percussionists and five strings. Though ostensibly inspired by Dizzy Gillespie and hip-hop, the score follows an abstract course, craftily resisting temptation to give in to the beat or a tonal center.
Composers have long bowed to, and filched from, folk traditions, but Berio's "Folk Songs" collection is unique in its mercurial blend of sincerity and subversion.
Varying attitudes and arrangements swirled around soprano Daisietta Kim's lucid, persuasive treatments of the songs, from America, France, Italy, Armenia and Azerbaijan, the last of which is a jaunty, fittingly inscrutable capper.