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Sound Proof That L.A. Does Have Considerable Cultural Tradition

Monday Evening Concerts celebrates six decades of performances with the first of its anniversary programs.


Sixty years ago, when Evenings on the Roof began its bold adventure with the newest music in a private home in Silver Lake, the pianist Leonard Stein was there. Now called Monday Evening Concerts, and the oldest series of its kind anywhere, it began its anniversary celebrations Monday at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and Leonard Stein was there once more. Invited as well to a program of music from its first two decades were the ghosts of Schoenberg and Stravinsky, the famous feuding composers, who gave the series so much of its early character.

Such continuity, especially in a city thought to be without tradition, is almost inconceivable. But the colorful atmosphere of those early days of the series is now next to impossible to recapture. In the 1940s and 1950s, Stravinsky and Schoenberg inspired intense controversy and partisanship; Boulez radicalized things further by proclaiming Schoenberg dead and Stravinsky irrelevant; critics flew into apoplectic rages about the vandalizing of musical tradition, and the general music public remained clueless even about Bartok and Ives.

Now, as the 20th century turns into the 21st, Ives, Bartok, Schoenberg and Stravinsky are practically Old Masters. Boulez and Stockhausen are elder European musical statesmen and arguably the greatest living French and German composers. And Monday's concert of their music--in which performers ranged in age from the 82-year-old Stein to a vibrant young violinist, Maiko Kawabata, still in her early 20s and studying at UCLA--was, in essence, an evening of classics.

It was, perhaps, most striking to hear Boulez's "Sonatine," for flute and piano, juxtaposed with Schoenberg's "Phantasy," for violin and piano. Boulez's aggressively nose-thumbing work was written in 1946 when he was 21; Schoenberg's magisterial, elegantly proportioned and considered score, written in 1949, was one of the composer's last. And yet, to this listener, the Schoenberg sounded slightly more modern.

Even with flutist Dorothy Stone spitting out the final blast just as aggressively as Boulez wanted it, the work's connection with earlier Impressionism and particularly with Debussy sounded everywhere, especially in Vicki Ray's rhythmically alluring piano playing. Boulez was still young and the violence of his emotions, for all his intellectualizing, still very much on the surface.

Schoenberg's "Phantasy," though more classically structured, so condenses its expression and its emotions that it seems to break new ground. It, too, has a degree of aggression and violence, though tempered with maturity and experience. And the marvelous performance--with Stein as the rock-solid pianist and Kawabata as the striking, impulsive violinist--demonstrated the depth of its extremes.

In an evening meant to serve history, the soprano Marni Nixon, a local legend known both for her involvement with new music and as the dubbed voice on many Hollywood musicals, joined Stein for a dozen Ives songs and Stravinsky's "Three Songs From William Shakespeare," which had its premiere at an Evenings on the Roof concert in 1953. Nixon, who sang Ives on the Roof 40 years ago and participated in several Stravinsky premieres, once more was able to remind us of the seriousness, challenge and fun that marked the music and the making of it back then.

The course of musical progress over the first two decades of the series was charted in two trios. Bartok's "Contrasts" (performed by Ray, Kawabata and clarinetist Gary Gray) modernized Hungarian folk music in 1938. In 1959, Stockhausen's "Refrain" for piano, celesta and vibraphone was an experiment in pure listening, in getting inside tones and silence, a complete break from a vernacular tradition. But its newness has long faded and what is left is its mellow beauty as it sits comfortably next to Bartok. The splendid performance came from members of the California EAR Unit (Ray, Lorna Eder and Amy Knoles), who best carry on the experimental traditions of the Monday Evening Concerts and who will offer the next segment in LACMA's three-part anniversary celebration tonight.

* "Radical Recapitulations," California EAR Unit, tonight at 8; Monday Evening Concerts Anniversary III, Monday, 8 p.m. Bing Theatre, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 5905 Wilshire Blvd. $6-$15. (323) 857-6010.

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