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L.A. Philharmonic cranks the Jukebox

Times Staff Writer

When the Los Angeles Philharmonic installed its Minimalist Jukebox in Walt Disney Concert Hall last week, the contraption arrived nearly empty. A nickel (well, $10) could get you Terry Riley’s “In C,” but that was all. The few other items were a hushed proto-Minimalist string quartet, ambient rock hash (left over from the previous owner?) and a dash of African dance and Indonesian gamelan.

Over the weekend, however, the deliverymen finally arrived with the goods. All kinds of goods. We can argue about what is Minimalism in music and what isn’t. Some of what filled the two programs by the Philharmonic and another by the Los Angeles Master Chorale fit into the classic 1960s and ‘70s model made popular by Steve Reich and Philip Glass: regular pulse, slow-moving tonal harmonies and repeated figurations shifting in and out of phase. Other pieces did one or two of those things.

But few listeners at Disney appeared in an argumentative mood. The energy level was way too high, the music much too good and the performances far too exhilarating to allow for quibbling about technicalities.

And there were, to begin things on exactly the right foot, Dutch composer Louis Andriessen and his two secret weapons: the Dutch conductor Reinbert de Leeuw and the Italian vocalist Cristina Zavalloni. Andriessen is Holland’s most important composer and a major international influence on a spirited younger generation. He is also a brilliant and proud anti-institutional nuisance.

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He loves the confrontational sound of the street, and his music can be full of jazzy, angry, in-your-face brass, winds and percussion that regularly overpower the strings, when he even allows strings in. Orchestras don’t like that, and he doesn’t much like orchestras. A politically courageous thinker, he has a genius for bringing classical texts musically up to date and a reputation for not pulling punches.

The Philharmonic bravely tackled two important Andriessen works. One was a classic, “De Staat,” written 30 years ago and with a notorious text from Plato’s “Republic” about the need to use music to control the masses. The other was a recent work, “Racconto dall’Inferno,” which sets one of the more scandalous passages in Dante, in which a devil guides the poet and Virgil into the gleefully grotesque hell designed for politicians.

Composed for Zavalloni and given its U.S. premiere Friday night, “Racconto” is very strange, dark, disturbing music for gloomy winds, intentionally annoying brass, cackling percussion, caterwauling electric guitars and a few struggling-to-be-heard strings. This is all striking stuff, but even more striking is Zavalloni, who is an improvising jazz singer and composer as well as an exponent of new music and extended vocal techniques.

In “Racconto,” she seemed to sing from every ounce of her razor-thin, fashionably clad body. Sounds came from so deep inside her that at times one might believe she was channeling Dante. Her movements were mesmerizing. It was as if Andriessen’s music had entered her body and taken over. She is an astonishing singer in a class of her own.

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De Leeuw conducted both “Racconto” and “De Staat,” which featured a luminous, tonally pure-as-fresh-fallen-snow quartet of female voices taken from the collective Synergy Vocals. Fifteen years ago, De Leeuw made a recording for Nonesuch of “De Staat” with his own superb Schoenberg Ensemble that is one of the essential CDs in any Minimalist collection. The Philharmonic performance (though with probably more guest players than actual Philharmonic members) was even hotter and harder-driven.

The other Philharmonic program was all by Reich, another composer who has also never been all that comfortable writing for orchestra. But Stefan Asbury, an exciting young British conductor, did a remarkable job in overcoming any sense that this isn’t genuine orchestral music. Variations for Winds, Strings and Keyboards, from 1979, may be unusually timid for Reich, but it did have its glowing moments Sunday afternoon. “Three Movements for Orchestra,” written in 1986, buzzed with animated confidence. And “Tehillim,” for a quartet of women’s voices (more Synergy soloists) and ensemble, a 1981 setting of Psalm texts in Hebrew, proved consistently joyous.

Works by Arvo Part, sometimes derided as a “holy Minimalist” (though actually no Minimalist at all), began both the Andriessen concert and the Master Chorale’s Minimalist Jukebox contribution Sunday night. De Leeuw created a ringing sensation with “Tabula Rasa,” featuring two driving solo violinists: Geoff Nuttall and Barry Shiffman from the St. Lawrence String Quartet. Grant Gershon began his Master Chorale program with two hall-filling pieces for chorus and organ: “By the Waters of Babylon We Sat and Wept” and “The Beatitudes.”

Meredith Monk and a pair of her vocalists, Theo Bleckmann and Katie Geissinger, then joined the Master Chorale for excerpts from her work, including the final parts from her opera “Atlas.” Monk too does not associate herself with Minimalism. But she repeats, so she is allowed in the club anyway. She also creates new ways of singing and fills the space with overtones. She and Disney were made for each other. And given the spectacular contribution from the Master Chorale, their marriage seemed made in heaven.

The final work was Michael Torke’s “Book of Proverbs” for chorus, orchestra and two vocal soloists (Jessica Rivera and Cedric Berry). Written in 1992, it is younger-generation Minimalism, in which Stravinsky, Reich and rock become something new and intricately bouncing.

Another spectacular performance, another wildly cheering crowd. And following “Proverbs” was a third characteristic of the weekend -- young listeners so energized that they became terrors behind the wheel.

So far, the Minimalist Jukebox has done just what the Philharmonic hoped it would do -- bring a new generation to classical music and perhaps sell these concerts to them on iTunes next week. The future is bright, as long as they don’t all run themselves over in the parking lot.


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