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The underdog concertos

Veteran composer William Kraft likes to write pieces that champion unheralded instruments. Now it's the English horn's turn to shine.

January 12, 2003|Josef Woodard | Special to The Times

JUST inside the Altadena home of William Kraft, a wall filled with photographs telegraphs the composer's saga. To peruse the wall is to take in key touchstones of 20th century musical history, with an emphasis on its Los Angeles connections. The 79-year-old Kraft can be seen in photographs of varying vintage, often revealing an impish smile, posing with such powerhouses as Pierre Boulez, Igor Stravinsky and John Cage.

Kraft's friend, noted film composer David Raksin, has signed a manuscript copy of his famous theme song to the 1944 film "Laura," "to krafty Willie." There are images of the composer with past Los Angeles Philharmonic maestro Zubin Mehta, a champion of Kraft's compositional work. And there he is in mid-laugh with the Philharmonic's current music director, Esa-Pekka Salonen, who will be shepherding Kraft's newest work, the English Horn Concerto, this week.

Those concerts will be something of a homecoming for Kraft. Although they represent his first orchestral commission from the Salonen-era Philharmonic, his roots with the orchestra run unusually deep. He was in the trenches as a percussionist for 26 years, the last 18 spent as principal timpanist. He guest-conducted the orchestra, served as its composer-in-residence from 1981 to 1985 and founded its New Music Group, which featured an older Kraft work on last spring's 20th anniversary program.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday January 15, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 12 inches; 432 words Type of Material: Correction
Augusta Read Thomas -- Composer Augusta Read Thomas was misidentified as August Reed Thomas in an article about composer William Kraft in Sunday's Calendar.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday January 19, 2003 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part E Page 2 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 61 words Type of Material: Correction
Augusta Read Thomas -- Composer Augusta Read Thomas was misidentified as August Reed Thomas in an article about composer William Kraft in last Sunday's Calendar.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday January 19, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 5 inches; 190 words Type of Material: Correction
Augusta Read Thomas -- Composer Augusta Read Thomas was misidentified as August Reed Thomas in an article about composer William Kraft in last Sunday's Calendar.

Needless to say, Kraft has stories to tell. Like the one about informing Frank Zappa that his odd and complex orchestral scores were too difficult for the Philharmonic to master in its usual rehearsal time.

Sitting in a barbecue eatery near his home the other day, Kraft remembered delivering the news to the avant-garde rocker. "I went to his house in the Hollywood Hills, and I told him I didn't see how we could do it. The orchestra would have to spend an entire week just rehearsing these pieces just to get them in shape. And he said, 'Well, you'll just have to cancel the rest of the week, then.' " Kraft laughs. The L.A. Phil did end up playing Zappa's music, at UCLA in 1970.

Kraft shakes his head over Zappa's approach to composing. The music, he says, was fascinating. But "it wouldn't have hurt him to talk to somebody about practicalities and notation, things like that. Why wouldn't he want to do that? I'm very concerned about being able to communicate to the players as well as possible how it should be."

It begins with clear notation

As one who has dealt with countless scores -- some, like Boulez's, with fearsome complexity -- Kraft has taken great care to be as clear as possible in the notations guiding musicians through on his own work, realizing that what he puts on paper is just the first step in the performance process. With scores, he said, "you can't get everything, but you do so much notation and then it's just up to the musicianship of the players to make it real."

Bringing his work to life this week will be the L.A. Phil's principal English hornist, Carolyn Hove. Kraft had previously written for Hove in 1999, in the 11th installment of his "Encounters" chamber music series. Last year, she asked Kraft to contribute a work to the Philharmonic's series of commissions featuring specific principals in the orchestra. The result was "The Grand Encounter" English Horn Concerto. It will be the first of numerous premieres this season, including Gabriela Ortiz's Concerto for Percussion (Jan. 23, 25 and 26) and August Reed Thomas' Trombone Concerto (March 29 and 30).

Hove noted that one of her career goals has been to expand awareness of her instrument, and she sees the Kraft concerto as a "unique opportunity to add something to the repertoire that's interesting and well thought-out. I'm a new-music person anyway," she added, "which makes it even more exciting."

Having also written concertos for tuba and timpani, Kraft is accustomed to writing for "underdog" instruments. The English horn certainly qualifies as such. A double reed instrument in the oboe family, it is born to be misunderstood. Neither a horn nor English, the "cor anglais" is so named for its angled mouthpiece, a twist on the French word "Anglais."

Ned Rorem wrote a Concerto for English Horn in 1993, but other such works are few, and Kraft enjoyed having virtually no precedent to impede his creative process. "One of the interesting things about writing a concerto now is that you want to find a way to do it for now, so that you're not referring to the past," he noted. "That's easier to do with more unusual instruments, like the English horn. Actually, that would include anything but strings and piano. With piano, you have to fight tradition, and so much great music is written for it."

Hove finds Kraft's concerto "completely different from anything else out there." Part of that uniqueness is Kraft's structure, based on the idea of engaging the soloist within three different trios. Orchestral parts are wrapped around the spotlighted trios, which the soloist joins by moving around the stage.

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