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Turning a deaf ear to felicity

Xtet soldiers on at the Monday Evening Concerts despite the venue's indifference and technical gaffes.

January 11, 2006|Mark Swed | Times Staff Writer

Last year, when the Los Angeles County Museum of Art announced it was canceling the most notable aspects of its music programming, a leaderless institution appeared shortsighted. It was not only indifferent to the historical significance of the long-running Monday Evening Concerts but also seemingly blind (and deaf) to the sheer artistic vitality its range of music programming brought to the museum and to Los Angeles.

Not until Monday night did I realize that a measure of mean-spiritedness has also infected the museum. The occasion was one of the remaining Monday Evening Concerts (the series runs through May 1) at the Leo S. Bing Theater, as well as the last scheduled appearance of Xtet at LACMA. Xtet, a one-of-a-kind ensemble celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, also had its own series in the Bing until LACMA pulled the plug.

This is how little the museum cares: There is no budget for publicity, although a sizable crowd of avid listeners made their way to Monday's concert nonetheless. There is no longer any program booklet, just some sheets of paper for the audience to gather. Monday, the ensemble members served as their own stagehands. The museum did not provide an adequate sound system for amplification, and severe distortion all but ruined one piece.

Still, Xtet soldiered on with curious, interesting music, very well performed. The program began with a tart reminder of just what Monday Evening Concerts -- which has just received another prize for adventurous programming from the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers -- has meant to the world of music. Soprano Daisietta Kim, accompanied by pianist Vicki Ray, pertly sang a delicious, innuendo-laden little song, "The Owl and the Pussycat." It was one of the last things Stravinsky wrote, and it had its premiere at the Monday Evening Concerts in 1966. It was the 12th (!) piece the great composer created for this famous series.

From there, Xtet, which enjoys performing works of varying instrumentation, spent the evening going back and forth between easygoing and hard-going.

Easygoing was the premiere of Tom Flaherty's "Cellorimbian Flights," for cello (Roger Lebow) and marimba (David Johnson). Cello and marimba are not easily matched, and instead of joining in friendly interplay, they joined in friendly spotlight-sharing. When the cello sang, the marimba faded into the background. When the marimba clattered, the cello became faint. But the score -- with its pleasant melodies, hints of tango and mariachi, and rhythmic liveliness -- did much to please.

Christopher Rouse's large ensemble piece "Rotae Passionis" from 1983, which followed, is harsh drama, representing the agony of Christ on the cross. Percussion is dominant -- the pianist spends more time at the timpani than at the keyboard, and the clarinetist doubles as percussionist. I don't know if Xtet programmed the work as a symbolic gesture -- Monday Evening Concerts' cross to bear and all that -- but that is what I kept hearing during this strikingly inventive, grippingly played score.

Bill Douglas' "Celebration V," written two years ago, was a return to mellowness in three genially jazzy movements for string quartet and bassoon. Finally, Ronald Perera's "Three Poems of Gunter Grass" was a last gasp of angst in a work for soprano, ensemble and tape that confronts Germany's past. The music was written in 1974 and utilizes many of the techniques popular at the time. Grass' texts, first published in the '60s, portray a bleak, divided Berlin.

The clenched-fist character of this overlong and somewhat obvious score does not mean it is without its chills. Viennese waltzes fracture and break, and Hitler, on tape, gets the disturbing last word. Kim was the vivid singer. What should not have been horrifying -- but was -- was the loudly distorted amplification to which she was subjected.

Perhaps LACMA, presently attempting to make Los Angeles a city divided between music and art, figures that if it is inhospitable enough to its unwanted musical relatives, they will pack up and move out early. The good news is that Monday Evening Concerts is rallying support and shopping for a new venue. Xtet, alas, has nowhere to go.

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