The underdog concertos

Special to The Times

JUST inside the Altadena home of William Kraft, a wall filled with photographs telegraphs the composer’s saga. To peruse the wall is to take in key touchstones of 20th century musical history, with an emphasis on its Los Angeles connections. The 79-year-old Kraft can be seen in photographs of varying vintage, often revealing an impish smile, posing with such powerhouses as Pierre Boulez, Igor Stravinsky and John Cage.

Kraft’s friend, noted film composer David Raksin, has signed a manuscript copy of his famous theme song to the 1944 film “Laura,” “to krafty Willie.” There are images of the composer with past Los Angeles Philharmonic maestro Zubin Mehta, a champion of Kraft’s compositional work. And there he is in mid-laugh with the Philharmonic’s current music director, Esa-Pekka Salonen, who will be shepherding Kraft’s newest work, the English Horn Concerto, this week.

Those concerts will be something of a homecoming for Kraft. Although they represent his first orchestral commission from the Salonen-era Philharmonic, his roots with the orchestra run unusually deep. He was in the trenches as a percussionist for 26 years, the last 18 spent as principal timpanist. He guest-conducted the orchestra, served as its composer-in-residence from 1981 to 1985 and founded its New Music Group, which featured an older Kraft work on last spring’s 20th anniversary program.


Needless to say, Kraft has stories to tell. Like the one about informing Frank Zappa that his odd and complex orchestral scores were too difficult for the Philharmonic to master in its usual rehearsal time.

Sitting in a barbecue eatery near his home the other day, Kraft remembered delivering the news to the avant-garde rocker. “I went to his house in the Hollywood Hills, and I told him I didn’t see how we could do it. The orchestra would have to spend an entire week just rehearsing these pieces just to get them in shape. And he said, ‘Well, you’ll just have to cancel the rest of the week, then.’ ” Kraft laughs. The L.A. Phil did end up playing Zappa’s music, at UCLA in 1970.

Kraft shakes his head over Zappa’s approach to composing. The music, he says, was fascinating. But “it wouldn’t have hurt him to talk to somebody about practicalities and notation, things like that. Why wouldn’t he want to do that? I’m very concerned about being able to communicate to the players as well as possible how it should be.”

It begins with clear notation

As one who has dealt with countless scores -- some, like Boulez’s, with fearsome complexity -- Kraft has taken great care to be as clear as possible in the notations guiding musicians through on his own work, realizing that what he puts on paper is just the first step in the performance process. With scores, he said, “you can’t get everything, but you do so much notation and then it’s just up to the musicianship of the players to make it real.”

Bringing his work to life this week will be the L.A. Phil’s principal English hornist, Carolyn Hove. Kraft had previously written for Hove in 1999, in the 11th installment of his “Encounters” chamber music series. Last year, she asked Kraft to contribute a work to the Philharmonic’s series of commissions featuring specific principals in the orchestra. The result was “The Grand Encounter” English Horn Concerto. It will be the first of numerous premieres this season, including Gabriela Ortiz’s Concerto for Percussion (Jan. 23, 25 and 26) and August Reed Thomas’ Trombone Concerto (March 29 and 30).

Hove noted that one of her career goals has been to expand awareness of her instrument, and she sees the Kraft concerto as a “unique opportunity to add something to the repertoire that’s interesting and well thought-out. I’m a new-music person anyway,” she added, “which makes it even more exciting.”


Having also written concertos for tuba and timpani, Kraft is accustomed to writing for “underdog” instruments. The English horn certainly qualifies as such. A double reed instrument in the oboe family, it is born to be misunderstood. Neither a horn nor English, the “cor anglais” is so named for its angled mouthpiece, a twist on the French word “Anglais.”

Ned Rorem wrote a Concerto for English Horn in 1993, but other such works are few, and Kraft enjoyed having virtually no precedent to impede his creative process. “One of the interesting things about writing a concerto now is that you want to find a way to do it for now, so that you’re not referring to the past,” he noted. “That’s easier to do with more unusual instruments, like the English horn. Actually, that would include anything but strings and piano. With piano, you have to fight tradition, and so much great music is written for it.”

Hove finds Kraft’s concerto “completely different from anything else out there.” Part of that uniqueness is Kraft’s structure, based on the idea of engaging the soloist within three different trios. Orchestral parts are wrapped around the spotlighted trios, which the soloist joins by moving around the stage.

“The English horn is not the kind of instrument that can sail over an orchestra playing forte. It can’t. It’s an alto instrument, and not a powerhouse, so it would be completely covered up by a full orchestra,” she said.

“You’ll be able to hear what I’m doing. But it’s also interesting to hear what the English horn sounds like when it’s playing with vibraphone and harp, and with alto flute and guitar, and with cello and violin. There’s a different color each time.”

Writing for this orchestra, Kraft has the insider’s perspective of a musician turned composer. His catalog of works for the L.A. Phil dates back to Concerto for Four Percussionists, which premiered in 1965, shortly after the opening of the orchestra’s new home in the Music Center. “Zubin liked it so much,” Kraft said, “that he commissioned ‘Contextures: Riots -- Decades ’60.’ ”


Thinking back over the healthy list of orchestra pieces in his catalog, Kraft said, “I’ve been lucky that I’ve had the opportunity to write orchestral pieces and have them performed.” He paused, adding a bit ruefully: “Maybe not twice.”

Beyond the Philharmonic, Kraft has had a life in and out of academia, including guest spots at Chapman College, USC and UCLA. He landed in the Corwin Chair at UC Santa Barbara in 1991, a post he held until retiring at the end of the last academic year. He founded the Ensemble for Contemporary Music (ECM) while at UCSB, and also an annual New Music Festival.

Kraft’s affiliation with UCSB continues: Feb. 7 marks the world premiere there of his long-awaited first opera, “Red Azalea,” with a libretto, based on the novel by Anchee Minn, by Christopher Hawes. Snippets of the piece, which Kraft began in 1997, were performed as a work in progress at the 2000 UCSB New Music Festival. Kraft has a keen interest in Asian culture, partly through the influence of his wife, composer Joan Huang, who immigrated here from China. Huang, in fact, was an ally in Kraft’s creative process. She had spent a few years on a Chinese collective farm and had memorized 200 folk songs. “All I had to do was ask her if she knew a folk song that had something to do with a particular situation -- e.g., a lost love -- and she would disappear only to return in 15 minutes with the music written out with the text in Chinese and English,” Kraft said. “Also, both fortunate and coincidental, was the fact that she was on the farm adjacent to Anchee Minn’s.”

Jazz infuses his works

It’s difficult to pin Kraft’s work down to an easily definable style. Although steeped in the theory of 12-tone music, a holdover from his studies at Columbia in the ‘50s, it also reveals the pull of his love for jazz -- especially its rhythms -- and the harmony of Impressionism.

Kraft fondly remembers running into jazz/pop arranger Johnny Mandel at an ASCAP meeting, when “he came up to me and said, ‘I heard your Piano Concerto last week. I don’t know why, but I sure loved it.’ I said, ‘I think I know why. It’s because of the idiom.’ The harmonies that I’m using are derived from jazz.

“I was so gratified that someone from the same background, from the same world, like Johnny Mandel, instinctively recognized the kinship. I thought I was on the right track,” he said. “I just had to get rid of the 12-tone getting in the way.”


Asked if he could be compared to other American “art music” composers with jazz backgrounds, such as Mel Powell and Steve Reich, Kraft said he could, asserting that “the difference for an American is the rhythm.”

He cites a particular point in his evolution as a composer -- a 1980 commission for classical vocalist Paul Sperry -- when he returned to his roots as a jazz drummer and arranger. Sperry, a tenor, has specialized in contemporary American music, including premieres of music by William Bolcom.

“I’ve always wanted to find a way of fusing jazz with classical -- I say classical, for want of a better term. This gave me an opportunity to investigate that, and I’ve been doing that ever since. It’s that idea of having the rhythmic structure of jazz and this impressionist world of harmony, which is certainly my language. It’s in the English Horn Concerto, very much so.”

His new concerto’s musical language, he said, is influenced by Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu who “I admire tremendously -- especially harmonically. I was listening to a lot of his stuff, admiring that quiet beauty of his and the freedom.”

While Kraft is a serious composer, whose music is highly sophisticated and never leans toward accessibility, his personality is down-to-earth. His wry introductions and banter onstage, whether with the New Music Group or the ECM in Santa Barbara, help to break the ice that sometimes clings to contemporary music performance. He will introduce his new concerto from the Music Center stage.

“I have a problem,” he said, slyly. “Humor creeps in wherever it can. I worried about it for a while. I asked [composer] Morton Subotnick and [vocalist] Joan LaBarbara what they thought, whether I should be more serious. They said no, it was important to relax with the audience. This ivory tower business is a bunch of nonsense.”



‘The Grand Encounter’

Who: Los Angeles Philharmonic

When: Thursday, 8 p.m.; Saturday, 8 p.m.; next Sunday, 2:30 p.m.

Where: Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., L.A.

Ends: Next Sunday

Price: $14-$82

Contact: (323) 850-2000