By Catherine Wagley
By Catherine Wagley
By Wendy Gilmartin
By Jennifer Swann
By Claire de Dobay Rifelj
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Catherine Wagley
By Zachary Pincus-Roth
Music for percussion-and-nothing-but is relatively new to the Western concert repertory. Most of our music, after all, hangs on melodies and harmonies that enable listeners to find their place during the course of a composition, and to whistle what they've heard on their way home. Earlier percussion solos -- the stupendous dialogue between chorus and timpani at the start of Bach's Christmas Oratorio or the big bangs in the scherzo of Beethoven's Ninth -- made their stunning momentary impact, but real percussion music began in the hands of the American pioneers Henry Cowell, John Cage and Lou Harrison, whose inspiration came from their thrilled discovery of indigenous music of the Far East and whose tools consisted of resonant ironware (trolley-car springs, brake drums and the like) unearthed from California junkyards. That all happened around, say, the 1940s; now, finally, composers here and in Europe are building a broad and eclectic repertory. Schick has said that when he gave his first solo recital, in 1978, he could choose from just about a dozen solo works. Now the 18 compositions that he performed on these programs stand for a mere fragment of the available repertory. Schick -- Iowa-born, early-40-ish, phenomenally talented and delightfully communicative -- has been a strong catalyst, as have our own local heroes Amy Knoles and Art Jarvinen, luminaries of the EAR Unit.
I heard the first two of the three concerts; the prospect of a live performance of Schubert's C-major Quintet further downtown proved an irresistible alternative to the last in the series. What I found especially fascinating in the two programs I heard was the distinction between the dabblers and the dedicated. There was Elliott Carter in the 1950s, for example, clearly fascinated by the newly proclaimed legitimacy of the new medium, trying his hand at short pieces for four timpani and turning out a couple of amusingly no-brain, predictable exercises in hootchy-kootchy rhythms at odds with everything else we know from this master of complexity. There was the 1995 Watershed I by Roger Reynolds, obviously delighted with a much more diverse collection of noisemakers, but putting them to paltry use in an agonizing half-hour of disconnected sound effects.
Better than either of these were two works of Iannis Xenakis -- the Psappha of 1975 and the Rebonds of 1989 -- which suggest that for this composer of fiercely driven, intricately structured music the move into writing for percussion was an act of liberation. Kaija Saariaho's Six Japanese Gardens, delectable, quiet pieces that Schick had also performed at Ojai in 1997, proclaimed once again the wondrous spectrum of soft beguilements that lies deep in percussion's world. And then there were the works of the enlightened madcap Vinko Globokar -- the 1985?Corporel, which explores the resonant capabilities of the human body as self-sufficient percussion instrument, and the 1972 Toucher, delightful for reasons almost beyond the reach of words. Let me try some words, however: It's a recitation -- live, by Schick, in French (!), delivered in what you might call an elegant hippe-hoppe -- of lines from Bertolt Brecht's Galileo, including stage directions, accompanied -- nay, illuminated to a blinding glow -- by a full panoply of percussion. Any juggling act you may ever have seen pales to butterfingers against the magic of this live event.
Let it be noted, furthermore, that in a wise and unprecedented stroke of managerial enlightenment, these three concerts were free to anyone with legitimate student ID; the hall, therefore, was properly full. I do not advocate economic suicide as a lifestyle; still, considering the depressing size of the crowds at some of the best of the County Museum's new-music offerings, installing this free-to-students policy as standard practice -- for a year or two, say -- might be a wise investment.
STUDENT-RUSH TICKETS FOR PHILharmonic concerts, on the other hand, have recently been pushed up to an unconscionable $15 (from the previous $10 that was already too high). A strong new management team takes over at the Philharmonic next month; building (or repairing) bridges to the student-age audience should take high priority. Surely last week's concert, by some distance the season's most imaginative and forward-looking program, should with proper managerial insights have done turn-away business with the same young-in-heart audience that had turned up at the museum concerts.
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