Southwest Chamber Music's L.A. International New Music Festival is more a Los Angeles interstitial new music festival. Skirting touristy Europe, these Southwesterners are not interested in inclusiveness but in filling gaps that very much need filling.
Monday's installment, the third of the festival's four concerts at the Colburn School's Zipper Concert Hall, did feature two admired L.A. composers who do not lack local institutional attention. Anne LeBaron, on the faculty at CalArts, happens to be the local composer of the moment with her breathtaking opera "Crescent City" currently in production and a piece on the Los Angeles Philharmonic's opening Hollywood Bowl concert in July. The late Daniel Catán, composer of "Il Postino," is a Los Angeles Opera favorite.
But Southwest Chamber Music is thus far alone in the United States in championingVietnam'sliveliest composer, Vu Nhat Tan (that will change; the Kronos Quartet is on the case). And the ensemble is in the midst of a recording project withMexico'snot-well-enough-known Gabriela Ortiz. Tan led an inspired improvisation with Western musicians and a visiting Vietnamese master of her country's traditional instruments. Ortiz was represented by a string quartet that bled Modernism into Mozart and a spirited competition she devised for violin and marimba.
But age before all else. The program included the West Coast premiere of Elliott Carter's "Three Explorations," which was given its first performance in New York last December — the day after the composer's 103rd birthday! Carter's recent wise work represents an unprecedented phenomenon of prolonged creativity in the arts. Could it be that this worries us in the youth-obsessed West, where it sometimes seems that we like our art to remain in a suspended adolescence? For whatever reason, Carter is ignored here.
In "Three Explorations," an Elliott meets an Eliot. Carter has set excerpts from T.S. Eliot's "Four Quartets" for baritone and an ensemble of winds and brass, and he has, in music spare but with febrile flashes, captured the essence of Eliot's "heard, half-heard, in the stillness" and his "time and bell" that "have buried the day."
But most of all, Elliott/Eliot become one in the line, "Quick, now, here, now, always." The brass poke it with a couple of sharp attacks. The winds hold a sentient chord. The baritone was the expressive Evan Hughes, who also sang the premiere. Jeff von der Schmidt, the ensemble's artistic director, conducted.
Von Der Schmidt paid tribute to another American modern master who had a good long run. Milton Babbitt died last year at 94, and his knockout "Homily" for solo snare drum was fabulously performed by Lynn Vartan.
Two of Babbitt's students also died last year — Catán and Peter Lieberson — and they too were recalled in moving small pieces (Catán's poignant "Encantamiento" for flute and harp and Lieberson's elegiac "Forgiveness" for baritone and cello). Stravinsky got a nod with his tiny "Elegy for JFK," which featured Hughes and three clarinets.
But that was it for anything elegiac. LeBaron's "Solar Music," which featured flutist Larry Kaplan and harpist Alison Bjorkedal, is full of striking, emphatic tonal colors. Mozart drifts through Ortiz's string quartet "Aroma Follado" because it was commissioned for San Diego's Mostly Mozart Festival. Mozart, though, is heard from afar, washed by a bright sunshine.
In Ortiz's "Atlas Pumas," violinist Shalini and percussionist Vartan were instructed to go at each other like soccer teams, and that they did.
Tan oversaw his group improvisation, "Cracking Bamboo," from the piano. Van-Anh Vanessa Vo played three Vietnamese folk instruments, including the pitch-bending dan bau. Southwest's flute, clarinet, harp, percussion, violin, cello and electric double bass joined in. The Vietnamese did most of the leading, and in one memorable section, the plucked strings of a Vietnamese zither were followed by Tan's plucking the strings inside his piano, with harp and cello joining in. This produced the sensation of a gentle rain falling on exquisite Vietnamese rice paddies.
The final concert in the festival Saturday will show another side of Tan, with the world premiere of his "The Song of Napalm."