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Sky High 

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Photo by Catherine Byrd

Hearing John Alden Carpenter’s Skyscrapers, which the West Hollywood Orchestra revived a couple of weeks ago after Lord knows how long, was like opening some forgotten closet and discovering Sleeping Beauty there, wide-awake and ready for action. The piece dates from 1924, and its musical manners might best be described as “bygone”; it stands today as a leftover from a time of creative upheaval in American music and, therefore, eminently worth a hearing now and then. All credit to Nan Washburn and her up-and-coming young orchestra for this reminder of where we once were as a musical nation, and where we were trying to go.

1924 was also the year of Rhapsody in Blue. The new thing called jazz was on everyone’s mind, but not everybody agreed on where it might lead. Copland’s Music for the Theater and Antheil’s Jazz Symphony sashayed onto the scene in 1925. Carpenter, born in Chicago in 1876, underwent the usual musical education at the time: early studies with one of the hidebound American conservatives — in his case, Harvard’s John Knowles Paine — and then to Europe for further polishing. His best-known work, a 1914 orchestral suite called Adventures in a Perambulator, has its cute moments adrift in the latter-day Brahmsian goo that passed for an American musical language at the
time. With a 1921 “jazz-pantomime” based on the Krazy Kat comic strip, and then with Skyscrapers, Carpenter seems to have caught a second wind.

Originally planned as a ballet for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, Skyscrapers is a series of cityscapes: workmen on high buildings, street dancing, the forgotten homeless, all set to a pastiche of jazz rhythms, pop-tune quotations, folk dances — an adorable junkyard. The scoring includes saxophones, a banjo, two pianos, a small chorus — Tony Thornton’s West Coast Singers this time — and a steam whistle. I won’t go so far as to proclaim the work a masterwork crying out for revival; call it a fascinating document worth an occasional look.

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This is the 65-member West Hollywood Orchestra’s second season; Washburn, who has also led orchestras in San Francisco and Sacramento, cuts a lively and engaging figure. The orchestra needs a proper home;
the acoustics in the West Hollywood Park Auditorium can most mercifully be described as horrible. But the impulses were admirable, and so, in an interesting and challenging program, was the level of performance. As a nice touch — for reasons of history, at least — the program also included music by Carpenter’s old prof, Paine’s Overture to As You Like It, fuddy-duddy neo-Mendelssohn, American music at ground zero. There were new or newish pieces by Ronald Caltabiano and Elinor Armer, and a bit from Copland’s film score for Our Town. Insofar as the Philharmonic that same night was trapped in the bleak confines of Richard Strauss’ Alpine Symphony, a choice between venues, acoustic problems and all, was relatively simple.

The last of the season’s Green Umbrella concerts at Zipper Concert Hall was a CalArts event, with the New Century Players conducted by David Rosenboom, the dean of the School of Music. Naked Curvature, a work by Rosenboom himself, took up the most time (or seemed to) in its world premiere at the California EAR Unit’s latest concert at LACMA. Something has come between CalArts and me, and it leaves me less than happy. I remember the school, from when I first came to California some 20 years ago, as a wonderful forum for worldwide innovative creative impulses. Major composers from all across the stylistic spectrum — Cage, Feldman, Xenakis, Globokar, Kagel, Takemitsu, Subotnick, Powell, Chen Yi — regularly came and went; the annual new-music festival had the throb of fearless composers reaching out toward a fearless audience.

What I hear now from CalArts is a form of retrenchment, not from a lack of composers but from a lack of interest in communication among the composers at hand. Most of the works
at LACMA were “tape and” pieces, for instruments here and electronic sounds there, not serving each other but separate — as if they could just as easily exchange places. The new Rosenboom work, which at least involved some degree of interaction between live instruments and software, presented itself not as something that leaps off a stage and into a hall, but as a speculation, a “layer cake of symbolism” with a mass of accompanying program notes appealing to the “numerically inclined.” (And to hell with the musically inclined!)

At Zipper there was more of the same: a performing ensemble (faculty members, mostly) of extraordinary skill tracing desiccated patterns in one work after another — until, that is, the final music on the program. That was the Nocturnal of Edgard Varèse, the composer’s last work, its closing sections completed by his pupil Chou Wen-Chung from sketches. Here, at last, was music that engulfed its performing space and its audience in an enormous, daring spirit. Older in years than anything else on the program, it was by far the youngest at heart.

To LACMA several days before, the Penderecki String Quartet came with an adventurous program — Górecki, Scelsi and Crumb — and departed to well-earned cheers. Founded in Poland in 1986 at the encouragement of the composer whose name it bears — and now resident at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario — the Penderecki has earned its place alongside the few other ensembles (Kronos, Arditti) noted for bravery no less than for skill.

Most extraordinary that night was the tenacity and pinpoint control through the Fourth Quartet of Giacinto Scelsi, that remarkable Italian mystic who fashioned long and thrilling works out of the microtones clustered around a single note, delivered as if from another
planet. Henryk Górecki’s Second Quartet, composed 15 years after the Third Symphony on which his fame rests, is another kind of haunting work. Like the Scelsi, it too draws huge musical breaths out of not very many notes, leaving the sense that the music had taken place somewhere inside the listener rather than on the stage.

Just the opposite, of course, applies to George Crumb’s Black Angels, which tends to howl an audience into submission with its anti-Vietnam yawp. For the first time in many hearings, however, I had the sense of a performance fulfilling the notes and the intricate stage directions, reactive to the specified louds and softs and the range of referential material threaded through the work — but with the spirit that moved its creator’s pen strangely lacking. Could it be that the secrets of Black Angels are now beyond the reach of performers too young themselves to have felt the tragedy that motivated this horrifying, spellbinding music? That would count as the Vietnam War’s latest casualty.

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