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Lawrence Morton Dies; Man Behind the Music

May 12, 1987|BURT A. FOLKART | Times Staff Writer

Lawrence Morton, a seminal figure in the musical history of Southern California whose ties with living composers and their music made national celebrations of the Monday Evening Concerts and Ojai Festivals, has died.

His death Friday at the Santa Monica home of his brother was reported Monday. Morton--organist, impresario and curator of both the curiously old and controversially contemporary--was 82.

Said his longtime friend, composer David Raksin, "Lawrence was the polar musical figure in this community."

The accolade might have embarrassed the sometimes churlish Morton, who often said that he thought his only "passport to immortality" would be the Eight Instrumental Miniatures that his friend Igor Stravinsky dedicated to him in 1962.

Active After Retirement

Although Morton officially retired in 1970 as Ojai Festivals director, he continued as curator of music at the County Museum of Art, staging several of the Bing Concerts each year and writing program notes for the public celebrations that came to him late in life--tributes involving such proteges as conductor Michael Tilson Thomas and composer-conductor Pierre Boulez, an old friend. As recently as 1984 he was lured out of retirement for a career coda at Ojai with Boulez on the podium conducting a program that Morton had suggested, which ranged from Wagner to Schoenberg.

The program represented the eclectic nature of the man himself.

In notes accompanying the Los Angeles Philharmonic's 1979 "A Tribute to Lawrence Morton on His 75th Birthday," Morton remembered how he "became a professional musician at age 17 or 18 when I began playing organ for silent movies." He dabbled for a time in jazz and movie music before moving to classic organ pieces while continuing his studies at the University of Minnesota, first as a medical student and then as an English literature major.

After talking pictures eliminated his source of income, Morton began playing for churches and on the radio while "teaching piano and organ to the untalented."

It was during the 1930s that he became aware of the music of Aaron Copland and Stravinsky, beginning what was to prove a lifelong devotion to contemporary sounds. Morton moved to California in 1939 to "achieve thermal composure and, with it, musical equanimity to the point where I am (now) happy with both Mozart and Brahms." He became involved with the Evenings on the Roof Concerts staged on the roof of the home of Peter and Frances Yates. An architect had made the second story of the home suitable for small concerts and they attracted a coterie of Angelenos who were unable to hear any but the most standard concert fare in the commercial halls of the city.

After Yates retired as director of the concerts, Morton assumed the directorship in 1953-54. The roof concerts evolved into the Monday Evening Concerts and came to feature national premieres of works by Boulez, Stockhausen, Webern and Schoenberg, and (Times music critic Martin Bernheimer wrote in 1970) "important resurrections of Beethoven and Ives." At one time Stravinsky alone was represented by 13 premieres.

Tilson Thomas was still a student when he began his participation in the Monday concerts.

Morton's successes there led not only to friendships and vacations and tours with the composers themselves but his engagement as director of the Ojai Festivals and curator of music at the County Museum of Art.

Morton once described himself as a "catalyst" in musical circles "and nothing more than that."

He acknowledged that "catalysis does require some knowledge and imagination" but placed himself behind the composers and performers who worked for him.

He also acknowledged his critics among the musical elite of Los Angeles, many of whom were offended by his controversial musical adventures.

Morton became less strident in his retiring years but continued to chastise cultural leaders for failing to acknowledge the contemporary geniuses that once had dwelt among them, particularly Schoenberg and Stravinsky, whose greatness, he liked to say, was "obscured by the smog of local nonculture."

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