Why is new music so often presented with the amiable fecklessness of a company picnic? Monday night, the Summer Composers' Institute at Cal State Long Beach offered its first concert in a fashion that made Monday Evening Concerts seem paragons of effective energy.
Director Samuel Magrill began--late, of course--by calling roll, revealing that half the audience were students of the Institute. The stage had to be reset--with the efficiency of Laurel and Hardy--for each number, and the composers gave unusually inarticulate and irrelevant introductions to their works.
The music, at least, provided dramatic relief from the prevailing amateurism. The three pieces heard in the Recital Hall were by the resident faculty, with student works to follow in three more concerts this week.
Benjamin Johnston made the most pertinent remarks, in demonstrating the just intonation employed in "The Twelve Partials." The title refers to the partials of the overtone series that provide the pitches for the piece, which is also divided into 12 sections.
After an austere fugal introduction, the other 11 movements vary a strong atonal theme, or at least its melodic contour, in a series of homorhythmic etudes or dances. These movements, reminiscent of a Baroque partita, are organized in a symmetrical arch.
Flutist John Fonville and pianist Virginia Gaburo delivered a forceful reading of the work. The tuning gave the piano exceptional resonance, which was exploited in a movement utilizing plucked effects, and the finale, in which Fonville played directly into the open piano.
Salvatore Martirano told us that the title "Stuck on Stella' was suggested by Dante and Weber's "Konzert-Stueck." The influence of the latter was evident in musical allusion and quotation, and in the bravura passage-work of this fairly traditional piano solo.
Gloria Cheng hurdled the finger-busters heroically. And she underlined the formal integrity of the episodic work, while allowing its essentially rhapsodic character full freedom.
Magrill's string quartet "Interminglings," composed in 1984, received its first performance. The composer had to conduct its four fitful movements, shake off at least one wrong entrance, and stop the finale midway--and restart.
Fragmentation of the musical impulse was the problem. Violinists Betty Beyers and Toni Marcus, violist Carrie Holzman, and cellist Dane Little sounded quite competent and reasonably rehearsed, and technical challenges were few. But Magrill's recycling of stock atonal gestures had only moments of conviction and cohesion.