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Force Majeure

Spectral Delivery

With a brassy blast onstage and an ethereal sigh from violas as if from another planet, the Monday Evening Concerts proclaimed their return in full force at Zipper Hall last week. Last year’s concerts had been a tentative set of “what if?” programs under guest curators, designed to see whether this basic and essential venture in musical exploration could survive the shock of being rudely cut loose by its grossly misguided LACMA management. Now we know; last week’s was one of the great programs in Monday Evening Concerts annals: important music wisely chosen by a management firmly in place, performed by a nicely selected ensemble mix of local and international players. Of the three remaining programs in this season’s docket — the next on January 7 — the same may be said.

This one began with music by Romania’s Horatiu Radulescu, played by the Alsatian violist Vincent Royer, who in two extended works — one in partnership with our own Kazi Pitelka — took his instrument into mysterious, spectral realms while crowning those almost-silent areas with dark-toned, near-brutal melodic patches. “Spectral” is, in fact, the current term for this intensely inward music; it has many practitioners, including the late Gérard Grisey, whose works the Philharmonic has played. In his view of musical sound as a spiritual substance, Radulescu can also be seen as something of a disciple of the late Karlheinz Stockhausen — who died last week — although the task of cataloging the vastness of that German visionary’s influence on his several contemporary generations is likely to occupy decades.

So, of course, does the music of Igor Stravinsky, whose In Memoriam Dylan Thomas provided a brief oasis of almost-tonality. The Monday Evenings gave the work its premiere in 1954; I produced its radio premiere, simultaneously, at Berkeley’s KPFA. (Funny: There hasn’t been a day since, when I can’t hear old Edgar Jones singing on demand its five-note theme, yet I think of it as a melodically austere piece.)

Then came the music of Iannis Xenakis, another Romanian: first, the breathtaking solo percussion piece Rebonds, played by the astonishing Steven Schick; then Eonta, “chamber music” (it says here) for piano and five brass instruments. Two trumpets and three trombones have at the piano for some 20 exhilarating minutes. They play into the strings, aim their instruments upward to reverberate, against the ceiling and against the back wall, out into the crowd; they generally misbehave. The pianist — the phenomenal Eric Huebner, fearless, red-haired local-boy-making-good in the realms of new music — enters the fray with something like 20 fingers at the ready. The piece is an explosion of pure, nonstop energy. Xenakis wrote it for the Japanese virtuoso Yuji Takahashi. His sister Aki has also taken it over. That’s okay; there are notes enough for two.

With a Name Like Stucky . . .

The next night’s Green Umbrella concert was a long-overdue tribute to Steven Stucky, on the occasion of 20 years of his stewardship of the Philharmonic’s new-music programming (under several titles). I don’t know of another orchestra so handsomely endowed with the advisory services of a major musical figure so broad-minded in the quality of his musical outlook, so generous in the breadth of his involvement in the contemporary arts.

Stucky’s contributions to Tuesday’s program ran more or less backward: a piano quartet and the Dialoghi from the last couple of years at the start, the Boston Fancies, which go back to 1985, at the end. (Did I hear them then? And did I mishear them then as work by a glib conservative whom I could never befriend musically? How we have grown!) What I heard last week was the work of a skilled craftsman, master of musical expression through getting the right notes in the right places and — in the matter of the Boston Fancies in particular — leaving notes out when they weren’t required. These are spare, utterly charming pieces, for reasons I didn’t realize in 1985. The recent Piano Quartet is a big, eloquent piece. Its composer is a contemporary master, whose presence does us proud.

There was other music on the program, by Stucky associates: James Matheson’s Songs of Desire, Love and Loss, which, I deeply regret to say, I’ve completely forgotten after one hearing, and Susan Botti’s setting of Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky,” which, I confess with equal regret, I remember all too well. That’s because her manner of song — composition and performance — closely resembles the upward-and-downward vocal pathways of Meredith Monk, which is a name that always makes me leave the room.

The Specters (cont.)

At Jacaranda on Sunday, there was more to be heard from spectral realms as this worthy concert series finally reached its goal for its multiyear plan, its celebration of the music of Olivier Messiaen. The landing was soft: a gathering of pieces from Messiaen’s tender years, packed with pretty ideas but hardly the substance of the visionary elder master and his explorations into the insubstantial — yes, spectral — world he would later explore so eloquently. Still, there was a lovely, warm-hearted Vocalise for cello and piano, and a couple of bird-in-landscape piano pieces from Messiaen’s 21st year that gave full notice of the scene painter of later years.

Some splendid programming of works from earlier pens — Liszt, Debussy, Ravel — gathered with the usual acumen of the Jacaranda guiding spirits, conditioned the audience’s ears for revelations to come. Steven Vanhauwaert (van-ha-WARE) was the pianist, a young man from Belgium who has carried off several local piano-competition prizes and played on Sunday afternoon as though he deserved them all. Timothy Loo, a Jacaranda founding spirit, was the excellent cellist in Debussy’s convoluted, quizzical Cello Sonata. The crowd at First Presbyterian was smaller than usual — the winds over Santa Monica blew chill that afternoon — but the brave were well-rewarded.