Thursday, October 01, 2015

Two LA Philharmonic Festivals of California Music

Dear Readers - this is the second of three unfinished Mixed Meters posts that have languished in my draft folder.  I'm posting them now to get rid of them in honor of this blog's tenth anniversary.

The line "Only now am I finding the energy to finish." seems quite ironic given the fact that it was written nearly 6 years ago.  (When I spoke of "January 16" I meant the one in 2010.)

This was not really intended as a concert review.  I have no interest in being a music critic.  Instead, I wanted to compare two music festivals, one held in November and December 1981 and the other in November and December 2009.  Both festivals dealt with the same general subject matter, music of California composers.

I have no idea what I wanted to add to this post.  My memory has deleted that information.  I've upgraded the links as well as I can.  Unfortunately the Internet has deleted some of that information.  I've been able to replace a few of them via  

I also added links to each of the composers represented on the 1981 marathon concert.  Curiously, a couple have Wikipedia articles only in Dutch or German.  Finally I've added  a few relevant pictures which I squirreled away back in 2009.   

As always, thanks for reading.  I encourage you to sing along if you know the words.


I started writing this post on January 16.  Only now am I finding the energy to finish.  My subject is two Los Angeles music festivals, one very recent, the other nearly 30 years ago.  Both of these events were devoted to music with a real, direct relationship to California.  Both festivals were produced by the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra.

The first, in December 2009, was called Left Coast, West Coast.  As far as I'm aware, this was the first time in nearly 3 decades that the Philharmonic had presented a series of events devoted solely to California composers.  The previous festival, in 1981, was called Festival of Music Made in Los Angeles.

In one of many pre-concert lectures he gave, the Philharmonic's Creative Chair, John Adams, indicated that the music of Left Coast, West Coast didn't really allow for any conclusion about California music.  The title itself suggested that our music could somehow be distinguished from Right Coast, East Coast music. That's not going to happen.

Personally, I found two interesting dichotomies of California music in the Left Coast, West Coast programs.  Turns out that it's not the longitude which is important.  It's the latitude.  In other words, the festival revealed differences between Northern California and Southern California composers.  It also displayed a split unique to Southern California composers.

You can still find a full program listing of the festival here.  My comments apply only to the four concerts I actually attended.  Other composers, mostly from the south, were presented by the L.A.Master Chorale, REDCAT and Piano Spheres   Other concerts were devoted to the worlds of pop and jazz.  And my comments should be considered very general - not hard and fast.  Exceptions abound.

The North California composers were John Adams, Lou Harrison, Terry Riley, Ingram Marshall, Paul Dresher, Mason Bates and Harry Partch (well, Partch moved around a lot.)  Their various pieces included elements of jazz, world musics, non-equal temperments, improvisation, found sounds, specially constructed instruments and electronic.  These all are cutting edge new music, valid, on-going trends.  They all have strong Northern California associations.

The Southern Californias were Thomas Newman, Franz Waxman, Leonard Rosenman, Jerry Goldsmith, Frank Zappa, William Kraft and Esa-Pekka Salonen.  These seven names divide neatly into two groups.  The first four are known primarily as film composers.  Except for the Goldsmith piece, Music for Orchestra (which was written specifically for concert performance and had my rapt attention from the very first note), these film-related pieces only strengthened my belief that film composing and concert composing require completely different talents.  I wish we could give a long, long rest to the notion that movie scores are worth listening to as pure music and without the visuals.

The three other Southerners, Kraft, Zappa and Salonen, were just as modern as anything from the North.  But these particular pieces revealed new music trends more attuned to East coast or European ideas.  (Let me note that Esa-Pekka Salonen lived in Southern California about the same length of time as Arnold Schoenberg, seventeen years.  Unlike Schoenberg, his music was strongly affected by California.)

It is good that the Left Coast, West Coast festival pointed slyly to this perennial issue of North versus South in California music.  Possibly, as Gustavo Dudamel comes into his own as music director of the LA Phil, we will see more consideration of North versus South, but on a hemispheric rather than statewide basis.

It's not particularly surprising to discover that Northern California boasts a more experimental music tradition while Southern California still struggles mightily to distinguish real art music from background sound tracks.   Still, for the time being, I see no sign that the South is any closer to resolving this musical schizophrenia than it was back in the days of, say, Erich Wolfgang Korngold.

Mention of Korngold brings up another unique musical cross which Southern California must bear: our history of great musical talents who came here in the thirties and forties to avoid European politics.  The most inescapable of these were Arnold Schoenberg and Igor Stravinsky.  These days Arnie's and Igor's direct local influences are long gone.  I've said (via Twitter):
If you still think Los Angeles is a great musical city because Stravinsky and Schoenberg lived here, please set your clock back 50 years. 
Maybe I should have said 29 years instead of 50.  In 1981, the LA Bicentennial year, the Festival of Music Made in Los Angeles prominently featured music which both Stravinsky and Schoenberg had written while they lived here.  The two composers were given equal status on two concerts, performed by the LA Philharmonic at Royce Hall.

Back in 1981 it was still easy to find people in Los Angeles who had studied with and devoted themselves to these masters.  Lawrence Morton and Leonard Stein came immediately to mind.

The rest of the festival consisted of one concert - actually a marathon.  It featured music by a wide variety of other composers.  The only requirement for inclusion was that all the music had to have been written in L.A. - or at least nearby.    The list contains some names not often associated with California and, unlike the 2009 festival, few film-industry associated names but many academics.

Joseph Achron
Erich Wolfgang Korngold
Gerald Strang
Leroy Southers
Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco
Frederick Lesemann
Gladys Nordenstrom
William Grant Still
Hans Eisler
Paul Chihara
William Kraft
George Antheil
Roy Harris
Dorrance Stalvey
George Tremblay
Robert Linn
Karl Kohn
Henri Lazarof
John Cage
Donal Michalsky
Ingolf Dahl
Ernst Toch
Adolph Weiss
Lukas Foss
Aurelio de la Vega
George Gershwin
Oscar Levant
Ernst Krenek
Halsey Stevens

The only composer whose music was presented on both the 1981 and 2009 festivals was William Kraft, who started his career as an L.A. composer in the mid-fifties.  He's still going strong.  He's also one of the few remaining local musicians who worked closely with Stravinsky himself.

Personally I can remember attending only one of the three 1981 concerts.  I also remember reading the lengthy erudite essays in the program book by Peter Heyworth and Lawrence Morton.  These were devoted to Schoenberg, Stravinsky and Otto Klemperer.

I vividly remember being absolutely bowled over by Michael Tilson Thomas conducting Schoenberg's arrangement of Brahm's Quartet in G Minor.  It's strange to think any piece by such a famous nineteenth century German composer might have even this small a connection directly to California.  Maybe that's enough of a connection to hold a county-wide Brahms festival, which is a much better idea than a Wagner festival.  It's also much less offensive in my opinion.  (Sergei Rachmaninoff lived and died in Beverly Hills.  I'm unaware of any music he might have written here.)

I do strongly believe in holding music festivals which feature strong California associations.  Serious music in California desperately needs some sense of place.  My problem with these two Philharmonic festivals has nothing to do with the content chosen for them.  The differences between them no doubt reflect the differences of the times.  The big issue, however, is the length of time separating the two.

I wonder if anyone planning the 2009 Festival was even aware of the 1981 Festival.  There have been other new music festivals between these two.  Most notable would be New Music Los Angeles in 1985 but that had a nationwide scope.

I can dream than more regular surveys of serious California music, past, present and future, produced by our major performing arts organizations, might lead eventually to a pre-concert lecture at which the speaker would be able to suggest some common aspects of "California music".  Maybe there will be, by then, a proto-california music style.  I should live so long.  In another 29 years I'll be in my mid-eighties.  If I'm around then I will, naturally, voice my disagreements with the programming right here at Mixed Meters.

Here's Mark Swed's review of West Coast, Left Coast
Read two Mixed Meters articles labeled William Kraft

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