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Last Night in L.A.: Monday Evening Concerts Reborn

A sold-out REDCAT held a brilliant concert to celebrate the re-birth of our Monday Evening Concerts and to honor the late Dorrance Stalvey, the man who directed the concerts for almost 35 years.  The series had hit a rough patch when Stalvey became director (and curator of music at LACMA).  He brought creativity in programming and in performance to the series.  To recognize Stalvey’s contributions to our community and our music, Alan Rich provided a lovely tribute to the man in the concert’s written program, and the centerpiece of the concert was the performance of Stalvey’s last completed composition, “Stream” (2002) for violin and piano.  As appropriate for a modernist who also started an important jazz program at LACMA, “Stream” was resolutely modernist, except for a touch or two of bebop with some stride piano in the pianist’s left hand.

The program began with Luciano Berio’s “Circles” (1960), first performed in this series in 1962 and twice more under Stalvey’s leadership.  Written for Cathy Berberian, our performance had Christina Zavalloni dazzling us.  We heard her first back in March when she sang Andriessen’s “Inferno” as part of the Minimalist Jukebox series.  Last night she was an elemental force, prowling the stage, sometimes playing with the words and sounds, sometimes cajoling, sometimes commanding, at all times handling the fearsome leaps and techniques as mere trifles.  The piece supports the soprano with harp and two percussionists who each handled 15-20 different instruments, plus occasional vocalisations.  Our harp was the Phil’s Lou Anne Neill (playing this for the third time in this series); our percussionists were Ross Karre and Steven Schick (formerly the Banger percussionist), now with “red fish blue fish” at UCSD.  The soprano is given the words to three poems by e.e.cummings with which to use Berio’s notes.  Berio’s program notes from the 1962 Monday Evening concert contained the following summary:  “The theatrical aspects of teh performance are inherent in the structure of teh work itself which, most of all, a structure of actions:  to be listened to as theater and to be viewed as music.”  Oh, he would have been happy with last night’s performance.

Christina Zavalloni gave one encore, a performance of Berberian’s “Stripsody” (1966) for soprano solo.  The score, of which a page is copied below, courtesy of Sheet Music Plus, is a collection of sounds or phrases which might have been written into assorted comic strips.  Once again Zavalloni triumphed.

The concert ended with Gerard Gisey’s “Vortex Temporum” (1994-1996) for piano (Vicki Ray in a major part), violin (Mark Menzies), viola (Kazi Pitelka), cello (Erika Duke-Kirkpatrick), flute (Dorothy Stone), clarinet (Philip O’Connor).  Musicians from California E.A.R. Unit and Xtet (the two regular groups of Monday Evenings at LACMA) formed the group and Donald Crockett of USC and Xtet served as conductor.  Mark Menzies has a good commentary on the work, with sound clips, at this site.

The work has elements of real power.  The most impact on me was the conclusion of the first part of the work when the piano launches into a demanding, difficult, aggressive solo, culminating with a crash of sound that slowly decays.  Into this quiet a faint sound begins intruding; it isn’t a sound from outside, or from the mechanical equipment, it’s the noise of the bows slowly scratching along the strings and finally a note resolves itself in the sound.  I found myself holding my breath.

Bruce Hodges comments on a 2004 New York performance of the work, and he was just as swept away, but he remained much more coherent about it than I.

What a great re-start to a series that means so much to our musical lives.  The remaining three concerts of the year will be in Zipper Hall of Colburn School, a slightly larger venue with outstanding acoustics.  This is so much nicer than LACMA’s multi-purpose auditorium!