Stravinsky’s farewell to Dylan Thomas, with whom he had hoped to write an opera, is a setting of the poet’s farewell to his father: “Do not go gentle into that good night.” The poem is not gentle and famously ends, “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”
The first performance of “In Memoriam Dylan Thomas” was at the Monday Evening Concerts in 1954. Robert Craft conducted. Aldous Huxley introduced it. The six-minute, exquisitely wrought score represented a new direction for Stravinsky, who had just adapted the 12-tone system of composition. The premiere also helped cement the future of the concert series, which had a new director and venue.
On Monday night, “In Memoriam Dylan Thomas” returned to Monday Evening Concerts to help it begin its second season divorced from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and at the Colburn School’s Zipper Concert Hall. The series is again finding firm new footing under Justin Urcis as managing director.
“In Memoriam” proved a fond, moving reminder of the series’ important history, and all the more so because William Kraft, with his own half-century association with MEC, conducted. Jonathan Mack sang, and the excellent ensemble included the Calder Quartet and a quartet of trombones.
But the significance of “In Memoriam” on a program otherwise devoted to captivating, astonishing music by Horatiu Radulescu and Iannis Xenakis was in Thomas’ text as well as Stravinsky’s music. MEC has not gone gentle into any good night. And rage, magnificently rage, the music most surely did.
A generation apart but both born in Romania, Radulescu and Xenakis represent two radically different approaches to the application of science and numbers to composition. Xenakis, who died nearly seven years ago at 78, used mathematics to create an architecture of music and for strong dramatic effect. Radulescu, born in 1942, molds the spectral sounds of the overtone series with spiritual intent.
A major figure in the postwar avant-garde, Xenakis was known for both the complexity and the occasional violence of his music. Radulescu, who now lives in Switzerland, is more obscure. Monday’s program had only two small works by him, Agnus Dei for two violas and “Das Andere,” a viola solo, but they were enough to reveal a special, remarkable sound.
In “Das Andere” (The Other), Vincent Royer, who has recorded all of Radulescu’s viola music, produced luminous squeals of harmonics that sang like voices from a distant, mystical realm. Earthy, powerful arpeggios were the contrast. The performance was breathtaking.
The briefer, more mathematically rigorous Agnus Dei, in which Royer was joined by Kazi Pitelka, is modeled after the Stravinsky of “In Memoriam.” But Radulescu, in constructing music based on a mathematical series of notes, is intentionally more monotonous. For him, every musical device is a technique for trance-building.
The two pieces by Xenakis were “Rebounds,” for solo percussion, and “Eonta,” for piano accompanied by two trumpets and three trombones. Advanced algebra informed his music to what might seem an unreasonable degree considering the virtual unplayability of his Byzantine rhythms and textures denser than any ear can unravel. But he had a knack for theater, and for all his intellectual cookery, his music came out sounding surprisingly raw and primal.
“Rebounds” is something of a calling card for Steven Schick, the extraordinary percussionist based at UC San Diego. But I doubt that he could offer his near-choreographed performance, played from memory on a variety of drums, too many times. It requires the intelligence of a computer, the body of an athlete and the poise of a dancer.
Likewise, the solo in “Eonta,” which was impressively tackled by Eric Heubner, is not for pianists fearful of insanely complex fractions. The brass, meanwhile, blare like animals baying at the moon. The players raise their bells to the ceiling. They wander to the piano and blow down toward its strings, which absorb the powerful vibrations. An inexplicable rite, full of rage and fury, is enacted. Rand Steiger, also of UC San Diego, conducted with convincing authority.