A fresh spring season for the New Music Group opened auspiciously Monday night with a bright, provocative program in Japan America Theatre. Included were West Coast premieres of recent works by Yehudi Wyner, Christopher Rouse and John Harbison.
Harbison himself, new this season to the directorship of the Los Angeles Philharmonic-associated ensemble, greeted the audience, introduced two of the composers and conducted the premiered pieces--handling each chore with apparent ease and careful professionalism.
As programmer, Harbison had made canny choices. His first, to honor former New Music Group director William Kraft by beginning the agenda with Kraft's "In Memoriam Igor Stravinsky" (1974), was the right one, and for reasons beyond the obvious.
Through cogency and communicative power, Kraft's three-movement suite for violin and piano achieves an elegiac tone without melodramatic gesture or outward turmoil.
It is a clear-eyed homage, sparse in texture and lyric in impact--even the central, interrupted perpetuum mobile has its eye on the sky. As played by Alexander Treger and Zita Carno, the nine-minute work delivered its paean with a quiet dignity befitting the feelings contained within its structure.
Through outwardness and motoric drive, Rouse's "Surma Ritornelli" (1983) for 11 instruments rushes forward for a quarter of an hour without looking back.
It is not entirely a work of belligerence, as Harbison indicated, but rather one of single-minded purpose. Steady, loud and mechanical for long periods, it nevertheless contains moments of repose; paradoxically, both modes of expression, as used by Rouse, hint at an Oriental aesthetic. The performance, led deftly by Harbison, emerged unflinching.
Through pointed word-settings and economical and idiomatic instrumental writing, Harbison's own "Mirabai Songs" (1982) offer accessibility and entertainment laced with a poetic eroticism. Aided efficiently by an octet of players and the composer as conductor, soprano Roberta Gumbel sang the six songs stylishly, if with fewer facets than they may require.
Through breadth of vision, a witty musicality and economy of means, Wyner's "On This Most Voluptuous Night" (1982), a song cycle for soprano and instrumental septet, provided the climax to this program.
Utilizing fully the emotional resonances in five texts by William Carlos Williams, Wyner has created musical miniatures of potent descriptiveness and depth. As is the case with every important song-composer, he draws inspiration from predecessors; in this case, the influences may be Faure, Ravel, Barber and Stravinsky. No matter--the results are individual, original and, in relation to Williams' words, unique. Most important, they touch the listener, instantly.
Gumbel's pretty but sometimes colorless soprano nevertheless gave the right voice to these evocative and atmospheric expressions. The splendid instrumental ensemble comprised Philharmonic members Janet Ferguson, William Lane, Zita Carno, Mark Baranov, Rochelle Abramson, Richard Elegino and Howard Colf.