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Kraft’s ‘Encounters’ with percussion art

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Times Staff Writer

William Kraft paints with percussion.

He calls himself an American Impressionist. His harmonies can have French inspiration. Rhythmically, he comes out of jazz. And color, he says, is everything in the percussion world.

To me, though, the 84-year-old dean of Los Angeles composers and former L.A. Philharmonic percussionist -- feisty as ever and currently being celebrated by Southwest Chamber Music in the first complete survey of his “Encounters” series -- is an out-and-out musical Abstract Expressionist. Monday night in the Colburn School’s Zipper Hall, five late works in this sequence of percussion pieces were given, including the premiere of “Encounters XIII.” Sonic action painting it all was.

In most of these works, an alien instrument or instruments “encounters” percussion, which usually takes the form of a vast, alluring battery. An encounter, Kraft said in one of his lighthearted introductions from the stage, implies warfare, and he has shamelessly rigged matters so that the percussion always wins.

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If the first piece on the program, “Encounters X: Duologue for Violin and Marimba,” was the least physically active because it uses but a single percussion instrument -- the marimba. Agitated violin lines are picked up by agitated percussion lines and thrown back and forth, as wood meets wood.

“Encounters IX,” for alto saxophone and percussion, attracts through resonance. Moody, chromatic saxophone lines are made to linger when the alto’s tone is enhanced by gongs and, later, restless, rustling snares. Tone colors bend in the wind.

Heaven enters the picture in “Encounters XII.” A harp is the outsider trying to maintain an ethereal calm while subjected to erratic, aggressive drums and other explosive devices. Drum blasts are followed by sweetly pastoral cowbells, as if a minefield were being evoked, all while the harp floats on the wings of weightless glissandi.

The earliest of the evening’s “Encounters” was the eighth. Playing this piece written in 1978 for solo percussionist and a great many instruments, Lynn Vartan -- who was also the commanding performer in the violin and sax “Encounters” -- was in motion for 16 minutes. She began with heraldic ringing and ended quietly. In between, she was the model of a musical action painter.

The new “Encounters XIII” is for wind quintet and percussion. In a discussion before the premiere, Kraft and Jeff von der Schmidt, who conducted, agreed on their dislike of the sound of combined flute, oboe, clarinet, horn and bassoon. But that is what percussionist Ken McGrath, who commissioned the score, wanted. And given that McGrath saved up for 20 years to be able to afford the commission, a wind quintet is what he got.

He also got a small masterpiece. Kraft took the wind quintet as a challenge. The five instruments rarely play together, so he could deal with their individual palettes more easily. He was also extravagant with his instrumentation, which includes contrabassoon, bass clarinet and piccolo among the winds.

The score lasts not quite nine minutes. And if Kraft wants to call it American Impressionism, he can. The color fields are exceptionally subtle. Cymbals pick up shimmering wind harmonics. The ominous buzz of the contrabassoon seems to magically slow down when underscored by the percussionist’s tom-tom-tom.

This “Encounter” is an encounter with Kraft’s past as well. As a kid in San Diego, he fell for percussion listening to the high hat of Count Basie’s drummer, Jo Jones. Jones’ high-hat style makes an appearance as the fade-out of “Encounter XIII,” which Kraft described as “sins of my continuing youth” -- not a bad subtitle for the piece or the series.

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mark.swed@latimes.com


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