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MUSIC REVIEW : Old Masters Under the Umbrella


Hard times have hit the Los Angeles Philharmonic. The New Music Group, the adventurous subsidiary that performs the mysteriously labeled Green Umbrella concerts, has been forced to reduce its schedule to four programs this year.

Still, there is good news in context. At least the umbrella is open.

Although contemporary projects often become the first sacrificial victims of fiscal constraint, the series was able to begin its 11th season Monday night at the Japan America Theatre. Late, in this instance, is emphatically preferable to never.

And there is more good news. The opening turned out to be terrific: an evening of stimulating music, nicely focused and brilliantly played.

The agenda was dominated by tributes to three old masters: Elliott Carter, 83; Gyorgy Ligeti, 68, and Witold Lutoslawski, 78. For a bracing little coda, there was a gentle nod toward the cheeky modernism of Colin Matthews, who at 45 appears to be a mere lad. Everything, of course, is relative.

Carter was present to savor the loving care expended on a disparate quartet of his own dedicatory miniatures.

The sparkling sonorities and terse complexities of the Canon for Four (1984), an homage to Sir William Glock, were deftly projected by Janet Furguson (flute), Lorin Levee (clarinet), Barry Socher (violin) and Daniel Rothmuller (cello). Ferguson returned to clarify the subtle lyric-dramatic contrasts of "Scrivo in vento," written in 1991 for Robert Aitken.

Camille Avelano's solo violin soared sweetly through the poetic ruminations of "Riconoscenza per Petrassi" (1984). Finally, David Howard (clarinet) complemented Socher and Rothmuller in the contrapuntal intricacies of "Con Leggerezza Pensosa" (1990), inspired by Italo Calvino.

Ligeti was represented by the Concerto for Cello and Orchestra, a stunning bravura exercise in which static transparencies are stretched until they give way, in relief, to wild theatrics. Written for Siegfried Palm in 1967, it received a dazzling performance on this occasion with the redoubtable Oliver Knussen on the podium and Lynn Harrell, resplendent in black tux and scarlet socks, dispatching the solo duties.

Those stellar duties culminate, not incidentally, in the frantic rhythm of "ghost-play" on the fingerboard. Look, ma, no bow.

After intermission, Knussen turned to the shimmering, whimsical charms of Lutoslawski's "Chantefleurs et Chantefables" (1990), a song cycle based on children's poems by the surrealist Robert Desnos. Solveig Kringelborn, an extraordinarily promising soprano from Norway, negotiated the awkward intervals and stratospheric ascents of the solo line with ease and accuracy, not to mention sweetness, purity and verbal point. Remember her name.

The concert ended with the coastal premiere of Colin Matthews' "Hidden Variables," commissioned in 1989 by the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group. Despite the composer's purposely obfuscatory description (". . . a contentious attempt to take the uncertainty out of quantum mechanics"), the 13-minute scherzo makes the most of chic and cheap minimalist devices by keeping all the expositions short, tight and compact. Eat your heart out, Philip Glass.

The applause at new-music concerts usually is dutiful and polite. On this happy occasion it was spontaneous and rapturous. There may be hope.

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