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Minimalism, ridiculous to the sublime

MUSIC REVIEW

March 22, 2006|Mark Swed | Times Staff Writer

Minimalism then and now, relevant and irrelevant, not-for-profit and commercial, mind-bending and mindless, life-changing and same-old, same-old. Thus opened Minimalist Jukebox at Walt Disney Concert Hall, the Los Angeles Philharmonic's two-week examination of a by-now multigenerational and commonplace musical phenomenon, but still a rare and audacious institutional adventure for a symphony orchestra.

The kickoff was an electronica, or ambient-house, or techno-something-or-other show highlighted by a three-hour set from the British band the Orb in Sunday morning's wee hours. This was insensible Minimalism as callous capitalism, the selling of hip. Close an audience's minds to open its pockets.

The house was full. It looked as if the Patina Group made a killing selling booze and breakfast. A party atmosphere pervaded Disney with loud music ever-present and old sensibility parading as new-media video everywhere.

The two members of the Orb understood show business and manipulated the crowd with a certain grace, raising and lowering the temperature (going from really loud to excruciatingly loud, changing gears with various backgrounds), but they were never very surprising, at least during the first hour of their three-hour set. Beaming Philharmonic officials licked their chops at a new crowd of supposed hipsters who found Disney cool, danced and talked but also sat zombie-like in their seats for hours on end.

Please don't worry, however. On Monday night, CalArts was invited to explore the roots of classic Minimalism, and it was here, ironically, that the future of music felt hopeful.

The program covered extremes. It began with a curiosity -- Terry Jennings' String Quartet. Written in 1960 by a 20-year-old, now nearly forgotten saxophonist from Eagle Rock (he died in 1981), it revealed the zeitgeist from which musical Minimalism emerged. As much an exploration of low volume as the Orb is of high, the quartet contains little more than a handful of chords or pitches that last a long time and are played at dynamic levels within the pianissimo and pianissississimo range. If you've spent too much time around electronica concerts, you've likely lost the hearing needed to perceive this music. But the CalArts student quartet (Johnny Chang, Eric km Clark, Natalie Brejcha and Aniela Perry) are still bright-eared. The piece lasts about half an hour, and in this sensitive performance seemed to breathe the air of other worlds. Strain to hear it these little sounds and ears open, awareness heightens.

Terry Riley's "In C," written in 1964 and the piece that launched the movement, followed after intermission and was played big. It looked as if the entire student body and faculty of CalArts' music department was on stage. In case the Guinness Book of Records is interested, there were 124 performers: five pianos, 11 clarinets and 11 guitars (acoustic and electric), seven trombones among the large brass contingent, 20 singers, a small string section and too much percussion to count.

David Rosenboom, the violist on the historic first recording of the piece, conducted. With him were two more "In C" veterans. Stuart Dempster was trombone on the recording and in the San Francisco premiere. Pianist Katrina Krimsky (then known as Margaret Hassell) played the pulse on the recording and again Monday night, knocking out steady Cs as surely as she had nearly four decades ago.

"In C," in which 53 short phrases in or around C major are freely repeated over the pulse, is usually a small ensemble jam. Here, Rosenboom more carefully molded it, indicating when sections should begin changing figures lest so large an orchestra seem chaotic.

Lost in the grand scheme and grand sound was a bit of the detail that can make "In C" so fascinating. But gained from this 800-pound-gorilla version was an incomparable sense of grandeur, with Rosenboom turning the score into a 21st century concerto for orchestra while nonetheless maintaining a strong sense of authenticity.

At times, the majesty of the music was astonishing. When the longest and most harmonically complex figure (No. 35) dominated, Rosenboom emphasized the brass, and the score sounded like the end of Wagner's "Das Rheingold" writ large and Postmodern. I particularly loved the timpani, which grounded the sound. The only thing missing was the Disney organ.

Monday's audience -- just as encouragingly mixed if not quite as affectedly hipster as the Orb crowd -- was alert, open-eared and excited, the Philharmonic's future. And if a pop music connection is needed, how about this: Both Jennings and Riley made albums in the '70s with guitarist John Cale.

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