At this point in the 20th century, new music ensembles have to consider a fairly dizzying array of repertory options. Predictability shouldn't be one of them, and it was anything but, Monday at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, when Xtet took the stage.
The fare was nicely framed by Stravinsky's tartly modernist 1953 Septet and Michael Finnissy's wickedly funny--or was it just wicked?--"mr. punch." In between came a mostly pleasant, neoimpressionistic wash of music, skillfully delivered by one of Los Angeles' most committed new music ensembles.
Donald Crockett's vividly conceived "Extant" began its life as a pithy three-minute piece in a 1996 Xtet program celebrating the ensemble's 10th anniversary. The expanded version, commissioned by the Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble, showcased the skills of bassoonist John Steinmetz, waxing elegiac in the first movement and chasing kinetic energy in the second.
Judith Weir's brief, intriguing work "The Bagpiper's String Trio" found violinist Elizabeth Baker, violist Kazi Pitelka and cellist Roger Lebow evoking bagpipe-ish sonorities, with open fifths and a hopeful spirit, while Samei Satoh's "Birds in Warped Time II" pitted pianist Vicki Ray's rippling, minimalist patterns against Baker's Japanese-inflected long tones, to hypnotic effect.
As for Finnissy's gambit, the local Icarus Puppet Company provided a rather nasty Punch and Judy show while narrator Ray demonstrated her impressive gift for multiple voices, and the ensemble added dissonant sounds. In this uneasy avant-vaudeville piece, comic sadism in the puppet department interacts with the risky cultural playground of new music. Virtually no one gets out alive.
* Xtet plays a slightly different program Dec. 12, 8 p.m., Harbor College, 1111 Figueroa Place, Wilmington, free, (310) 374-2141.