Interesting paradox: At a time of continued lamentation in certain unenlightened circles over the overdose of hardcore atrocities being foisted upon helpless local audiences, the past few weeks have seen more kindness extended to new music than to the warhorses. At the Philharmonic we’ve recently had Esa-Pekka’s first foray — except as concerto accompanist — into Tchaikovsky (a near fiasco), and a night of Beethoven, Schumann and Mendelssohn (not much better) under guest conductor Jahja Ling; at the Opera, Il Trovatore badly treated; on the recital stage, a Beethoven program (well-performed, I’m told) by the violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter, known for her services to contemporary music.
I chose the California EAR Unit, concluding its Wednesday-night residency series at the County Museum, over the Mutter, and was not sorry. In this past fortnight I was also able to commute from the Philharmonic’s Ligeti programs to Vicki Ray’s marvelous “Piano Spheres” recital in Pasadena, to Mathias Goerne’s extraordinary recital of Hanns Eisler songs at Hollywood’s Temple Israel, to a program of “Pacific Rim” composers at Cal State L.A. — organized by CalArts’ adventurous and enterprising pianist Lisa Sylvester — to more new music played by the modest but ambitious Symphony of the Canyons in Valencia. Two of these concerts contained brand-new works composed for and performed by that local monument of cellistic probity, the EAR Unit’s Erika Duke-Kirkpatrick. In the weeks ahead the choices include more Ligeti at the Philharmonic (May 22–24); the marvelous annual festival at Ojai (May 29–31); a fantastic array of contemporary works, including several multimedia ventures, in “Resistance Fluctuations,” a “new and unpredictable” festival organized by Dan Rothman’s “Wires,” with performances at LACE and the County Museum; and a visit from Austria’s Klangforum Wien (June 2–7). Whatever happened to post-season doldrums?
Concerts of hardcore contemporary demand prodigies of courage and loyalty to the cause — from the performers onstage and from the usually undersize audience as well. Nobody expects much ear candy from the EAR Unit; the exhilaration stems rather from the group’s awesome fearlessness in the presence of challenging, abrasive, sometimes (but not always) rewarding new music, and the sense they provide that they’re all in it together for the challenges and for the fun.
Fun? Try this on your cello: a long, rhapsodic solo with the performer also singing a sinuous, captivating microtonal vocalise that seems to twine around the cello line like gift-wrap glitter liberally sprinkled, and with the harmonic deviations between voice and instrument creating a strange and novel intensity. That’s Joan La Barbara’s A Trail of Incandescent Light, written for and majestically delivered by Erika Duke-Kirkpatrick. Or consider Zilver, the weird and witty pastiche by Netherlander Louis Andriessen, in which an unidentified but definitely pop-sounding tune plays off against its own image at different speeds, faster and faster until you forget to breathe. Milder onslaughts on the sensibilities found embodiment in Paul Dresher’s Double Ikat — a mellow and richly patterned interweave, by Dresher’s admission his “most blatantly lyrical work to date” — and James Sellars’ accurately titled Go, an ice-cold cascade of prickly, changing but hugely propulsive rhythms.
Founded at CalArts in the early 1980s, in residence at the County Museum since 1987, the EAR (“Experimental and Recent”) Unit belongs in the small company of new-music ensembles — including the Klangforum Wien due here week after next — for whom neither 12-tone row nor no-tone improv holds terror. Honoring its Californian identity, the group has also ventured into mixed media, notably an eveninglong rainforest piece some years ago with performance artist Rachel Rosenthal, not easily forgotten.
Audiences for new music remain small but loyal, even passionate; at LACMA’s Monday Evening Concerts you can still run into people who attended the first of these events (under their previous name, “Evenings on the Roof”) in 1939. With advertising budgets for new-music events down to practically zero, it’s more depressing that so few people even know about these concerts than that so few show up. Less than 200 attended this season’s final EAR Unit event; even fewer usually show up at the Monday events, scattered through the drab and uninviting 600-seat space that serves the County Museum as a pretty good place for movies but not much else. Better there than nowhere, however.
With the Symphony of the Canyons — much of whose membership is drawn from the music faculty at the college of that name — Duke-Kirkpatrick played another brand-new piece composed for her, Michael Jon Fink’s Touchless Light Alone, its light this time less incandescent than in La Barbara’s work, the cello writing intensely and rewardingly lyrical, the mood, alas, somewhat on the morose side. (Fink’s funk?) Its 18 minutes go by as a series of slow forebodings of events that never materialize; after 10 or so minutes of soulfulness you long for the music to turn naughty, and it never does. Robert E. Lawson leads the orchestra, which gives five ambitious programs a year in the acoustically and visually wretched setting of the college cafeteria. Before the new work came the Overture to Wagner’s Tannhäuser, which, the program noted, had been composed in 1815 — surely the first known opera by a 2-year-old womanizer. The prospect of a Mahler First by such meager forces sent me homeward at intermission. I am honor-bound to report, however, that the crowd seemed to be having a swell time — small babies and all.
Pasadena’s Neighborhood Church is a far more welcoming venue, and the season’s final “Piano Spheres” program drew a deservedly large crowd that braved rain, fog, and hard new music punctuated by occasional onslaughts from tape and percussion. Founded four seasons back by the area’s five most adventurous pianists — Gloria Cheng-Cochran, Vicki Ray, Mark Robson, Leonard Stein and Susan Svrcek — the series could stand as a programming model, a fine-tuned progression of the lesser- and better-known, of the abrasive and soothing. The Vicki Ray concert included a set of beguiling, entrancing, tiny pieces by Gyorgy Kurtág, a splendid new sonata by Steven Hartke that had the shadow of George Gershwin smiling from the wings, and a piece by EAR Unit percussion goddess Amy Knoles, a hilarious tribute to a favored Belgian restaurant in London.
The Music Hall at Cal State L.A. is small, somewhat drab but friendly; “New Music From the Pacific Rim” filled it with strong and attractive ideas. Best came last: Spiral II by Cambodia’s Chinary Ung (now on the faculty at UC San Diego), for soprano (Jacqueline Bobak), piano (Lisa Sylvester) and — if you’re ready — tuba (Douglas Tornquist). Don’t worry, it seemed to say, our contemporary composers aren’t going to run out of ideas anytime soon.