A Deaf EAR

Photo by Richard Hines

A HOLLOW RING

The news had begun to circulate over the weekend, so that by Monday night the crowd at the County Museum for the EAR Unit season’s final concert was considerably larger than usual. The news involved decisions by LACMA’s directors to end, or at least curtail, its activities as a presenter of concerts in its 600-seat Bing Theater, activities that considerably predate the building itself and that include the Monday Evening Concerts that have been the oldest continuous series of its kind anywhere in the country. “Its kind” has meant programs of high adventure: contemporary music, early music, music from the familiar repertory from all periods, in performances of unusually high caliber. There have also been programs on other nights: concerts of more familiar repertory supported by the Rosalinde Gilbert Estate, Ensemble Residencies by two of the area’s most enterprising chamber groups — the EAR Unit and XTET — and free jazz concerts on the museum’s plaza.


Now, suddenly, word is out that the ax is poised and about to fall. Before the EAR Unit concert, as it happened, there was a dinner at the museum for visiting arts journalists at which the program’s two composers, Paul Dresher and Mort Subotnick, legitimized the event by talking about their music. There were also boilerplate speeches by the museum’s curators and other reps, rattling on about LACMA’s commitment to the arts, but these rang hollow given the occasion. There is further word of negotiations still going on, but the situation at this writing is that the Monday Evening Concerts — the most creative series, the direct inheritor of an enterprise that began (as “Evenings on the Roof”) on a Silver Lake rooftop in 1939 and has been the heartbeat of the Los Angeles creative impulse since then — will be vouchsafed one more year of life, under the leadership of Dorrance Stalvey, who has run the series since 1971, and then close down forever. The free jazz will continue. The residency programs and the Rosalinde Gilbert series will be discontinued.



People around town are writing letters, as well they should. There were things wrong with the museum concerts, most of all the drab, uncomfortable auditorium, which was much too large. Stalvey, 75 and not well, has never had the support from the museum that would have enabled him to publicize his concerts properly; some amazing events have gone on before audiences of 100 or fewer. The eventual end of programming at the museum does not pull the plug on small-music concerts in the area, of course. There’s Santa Monica’s Jacaranda (see below), which I’ve come to love; there’s more and more good music at the Zipper Concert Hall downtown, including the valuable “Piano Spheres” series, and at Disney Hall’s REDCAT. There are the hot-ticket “Historic Sites” concerts, if you can get near them. I am concerned, however, at the decline of serious music events at UCLA, whose current program manager, David Sefton, seems to have his head buried in esoteric foreign theater while one of the city’s best halls, Royce, goes sadly underused.


But music at LACMA has always been more than any of this, because Stalvey — and Stalvey alone — has run the series as a flowing pipeline to the world of current creativity, blended into the strong impulses of music’s great past. Cases in point: the Penderecki Quartet concerts, which I exulted over last week, or the New York New Music Ensemble, or the Parisii, or the amazing bassist Scodanibbio — all of whom entered Los Angeles’ awareness thanks to Stalvey’s booking. The EAR Unit, rounding out 18 years’ residence at LACMA, was and remains a unique organization, above all for a certain built-in ecstasy in its playing that sends everything skyward.


Most of the EAR members and Subotnick grew up at CalArts, after all; there was something in Mort’s new big piece they played the other night, the 2003 Release for electronic sounds and instruments, that seemed to sum up the broad gestures of their lifetimes: something of his pioneering earlier work, the electronic/symphonic Silver Apples of the Moon or the mixed-media Key to Songs, historic but still very fresh and exuberant. So, too, for Paul Dresher’s The Tyrant — unusually, for him, a non-electronic piece, a monodrama for tenor and instruments drawn from an Italo Calvino text on tyranny that also became Luciano Berio’s Un Re in Ascolto: tense, bitter drama handsomely set forth by the apparently indestructible Jonathan Mack.




A HAPPIER ENDING

Splendidly planned and produced, the Jacaranda concerts at Santa Monica’s First Presbyterian Church give me the impression of a series of aristocratic musical evenings fashioned by exceptionally intelligent people for their own pleasure first of all, and for anyone of like mind who happens by. The exceptionally intelligent people are the partners Patrick Scott and Mark Hilt, and the second year of Jacaranda, which concluded last weekend with a Benjamin Britten program, has been a glowing tribute to the high inventive level that these concerts have attained from the start. The like-minded, furthermore, have been happening by in droves. The church itself is handsome, small and comfortable; its new concertgoing friends pray that the current round of repairs and additions will keep it so. Patrick does the welcoming, and writes the uncommonly informative program notes. Mark is the organist and choir director, and the one small drawback at this Britten evening was that the Chancel Choir, numbering 14, is not quite ready for prime time.


Everything else was. The Denali Quartet, which has been Jacaranda’s resident string group from the start and grows in strength and expressive depth, mastered the Britten Third Quartet, a work of remarkable richness and subtlety of tone, centered on a slow movement that is a long, haunting violin solo with other instruments massed as a soft shimmer underneath. Oboist Keve Wilson and violist Alma Lisa Fernandez unearthed Britten solo works seldom heard, and the chorus did muster a fair degree of strength at the end to deal with the mix of the childlike and the visionary in the remarkable cantata Rejoice in the Lamb.


Jacaranda’s third season begins in October with an American program. The whole season isn’t quite set, but what’s been confirmed includes a lot of my favorite music and, perhaps, yours as well. They may run out of music at LACMA, but not in Santa Monica.



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