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Charming, Challenging Alternate Program From Les Percussions

November 01, 2000|JOSEF WOODARD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

One distinct aspect of hearing a great percussion ensemble, such as Les Percussions de Strasbourg, is the vividness of its performance. Things are struck and limbs flail. The rhythms proceed mathematically; the musicians maneuver around a stage full of instruments dramatically.

All those charms surfaced at the ensemble's performance at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art on Monday. Les Percussions de Strasbourg, founded in 1962, is considered one of foremost percussion groups on the scene, and the current generation of players lived up to that reputation.

A last-minute wrangle with U.S. Customs nearly proved disastrous, however--the musicians barely showed up in time for the concert.

Due to the crunch, they couldn't prepare for the originally planned program, which included their version of Varese's "Ionisation."

But there was little lost. The alternate program proved bracing and intellectually challenging, highlighted by Iannis Xenakis' "Pleiades," commissioned by the group in 1979.

A big, propulsive ensemble sound spilled forth from tom-toms, mallet instruments and, most enticing, the sixxen, an aluminum instrument of loose intonation invented by the composer for the piece.

Sometimes, the work had the collective logic of gamelan music, but in the final movement, shifting rhythmic phases hewed closer to Xenakis' mathematical leanings. Xenakis' score has an analytical aura, but it also takes you into a world of tremendous vitality--especially played with potency in a live setting.

The concert opened on more sonically liquid terms, with Francois-Bernard Ma^che's 1978 piece "Aera." The work proceeds in waves of musical energy, building tension through volume and clenching dissonance, only to release and start again. Vibraphones and other pitched mallet instruments are bowed and played in rolling rhythms; gongs punctuate the flow.

It was one of those concerts where being there really counted for something.

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