Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

To Each His Own

January 14, 2009

Members of Xtet
Photo: mine 2008

I have been neglecting my duty to mention the very fine program earlier this week from Monday Evening Concerts, which was held, as is their wont, at the Zipper Concert Hall downtown. A great show is standard operating procedure for the MEC folks and this was no exception with a program focused on three American composers born in the 20s and 30s. The players this evening were drawn from yet another remarkable local group committed to 20th and 21st century music, Xtet, which was led by conductor Donald Crockett throughout.

Things started off with Morton Feldman’s The Viola in my Life II which featured soloist Kazi Pitelka. It’s hard not to think of this as a sort-of viola concerto. It's actually about as far from a concerto as you can imagine, but it is very much a work of Feldman’s with quiet shifting tones throughout. This is definitely music that , in the words of the late, great Betty Freeman, doesn't tell you how you should feel. Following this was a puckish and impudent work from Alvin Curran, Schtyx from 1992. A response to concerns about the lack of melody in his music, Curran fills Schtyx with all kinds of conventional tunes. The catch is that none of this ever gets very far in a system filled with percussive and disturbing interruptions. A trio of piano, violin, and percussion are assailed by bass drums and cymbals often played by pianist Vicki Ray or violinist Sarah Thornblade. Each of them was armed with their own percussion instrument to alternate with their other primary duties. So what’s a percussionist like David Johnson to do with all the competition? How about scrape a stool across the floor, toss cymbals to the stage floor and drop box fulls of pots and pans in a crashing ramble. I know it sounds noisy, and it can be, but this farcical piece was the highlight of the show and quite witty.

After the break, there were two pieces from Frederic Rzewski: 96, an homage to Elliott Carter, and Pocket Symphony, a longer work originally commissioned by eighth blackbird. Both were played quite well, but the more substantial piece, Pocket Symphony, was the more intricate and involving. Played by a small ensemble, the piece is interrupted by six separate solo riffs from various instruments in a fashion not unlike a jazz ensemble. And while these cadenzas never quite reach the level of all-out improvisation, they do allow for the ensemble members to show off their own take on an interesting work.

The MEC has a number of strong programs left this year including a solo organ performance from Charlemagne Palestine in March, and they come highly recommended.


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