On Sunday, the USC Contemporary Music Ensemble will make its Berlin debut as part of the celebration of that city's 750th anniversary. On Tuesday at the Schoenberg Institute, the ensemble offered the hometown folks a pre-tour hearing of its "Music From Exile" program.
Gathered by artistic director Leonard Stein as a historically resonant sampling of music written by emigres from Nazi Berlin who were active at one time or another in Los Angeles, "Music From Exile" makes strong musical points while leaving the connections linking Berlin, exile and Los Angeles rather vague in some cases.
There is irony to spare in offering Berlin a Hanns Eisler composition as "Music From Exile," since in 1948 Eisler was effectively exiled from this country by the House Un-American Activities Committee, and eventually returned to Berlin . . . to the Soviet sector.
"Fourteen Ways to Describe Rain," however, is an apolitical set of variations in a tonally oriented serial style, composed in New York as part of a research project in film music. Without the film, it is hard to hear rain in this earnest, tightly structured work. Larry Livingston, dean of the USC school of music, supervised the able efforts of a mixed sextet.
The reasons offered for including "Samuel Chapter," by Los Angeles Philharmonic composer-in-residence and recent Pulitzer prize-winner John Harbison, were not convincing. But "Samuel" is a wonderfully dramatic, evocatively scored piece for which much historical irrelevance can be forgiven. The ensemble performed it earlier this year during the New Music LA festival, but "Samuel" lost none of its immediacy or beguilement in a second hearing.
This time, soprano Rebecca Sherburn was the story-singer, vocally powerful and in fluent command of Harbison's sometimes angular, sometimes sinuous lines. Donald Crockett led the urgent reading, deftly controlled in all but the ultimate degree of dynamic definition.
Sherburn also sang--eminently sweetly--Ernst Toch's pastoral, quasi-archaic "There Is a Season to Everything" (1953). Flutist Ann Erwin, violinist Pieter Schoeman, clarinetist Michael Grego and cellist Jeffrey Watson supported her handsomely, without conductor.
Ernst Krenek could hardly be considered to have been in exile in 1959, when he wrote his "Flute Piece in Nine Phases." It provides, however, a generous dose of the most rigorous serial procedures, and a relentlessly taxing workout for a flutist. The effort was apparent, but gave Erwin's playing added intensity. Pianist Vicki Ray accompanied with pertinent precision.
Schoenberg's defiant, mocking, bombastic "Ode to Napoleon Buonaparte" closed the program. Hector Vasquez brought orotund tones and a measured rhythmic stride to the recitation and pianist Gloria Cheng and the Sulian Quartet played the overtly dramatic score with zeal, also without conductor.