Sunday, October 14, 2018

A “Golden Age” of Modernism in Los Angeles

Evenings On and Off the Roof is not a new book. The fact is that it had been lingering on my things-to-read pile for over a year following its purchase; but it thrust its way back onto my radar while I was reading The Doctor Faustus Dossier over this past summer, prior to writing about it at the end of August. The source materials in that latter book were so rich with accounts of an adventurously creative music scene in Los Angeles, resulting from the influx of artists and intellectuals seeking exile from the rise of the Nazis, that I could not resist the temptation to learn more about that “golden age” in Los Angeles history. The full title of the book that I had put “on hold” is Evenings On and Off the Roof: Pioneering Concerts in Los Angeles, 1939–1971; and the author is Dorothy Lamb Crawford. It covers a period that begins after the chronology of The Doctor Faustus Dossier but extends about two decades further into the future.

The title refers to a concert series that was initiated by Peter Yates, whom my composition teacher would have described as “an amateur in the true sense of the word.” In other words, while Yates himself was not a professional musician, he was interest in providing a platform for the abundant resources of creative musical talent that could be found in Los Angeles in 1938. Here is a sample of Crawford’s text that sets the context for this period:
Eugene Goossens, the English conductor renowned for his ability with new works, had played Bartók, Honegger, Prokofiev, Schoenberg, and Stravinsky on visits to the Hollywood Bowl in 1926–1929; Frederick Stock gave the Bowl’s first all-American concert in 1932 (performing palatable music by Henry Hadley, Deems Taylor, and Edward MacDowell); but in 1933 Nicolas Slonimsky was unceremoniously ousted from his eight-week conducting contract at the Bowl because he dared expose the populace to works of Varèse, Schoenberg, Harris, and Ives.
The platform that Yates had in mind was the roof of his house on Micheltorena Street, which he covered with a basic frame structure designed to provide acoustics suitable for the performance of chamber music.

The primary body of Crawford’s book is a season-by-season account of the concerts offered through a series originally known as Evenings on the Roof and in 1954 would change its name to Monday Evening Concerts. This might strike some as being about as stimulating as reading a laundry list until one realizes just how many significantly creative musicians were part of the process. Indeed, a straightforward list of those compositions that received their world premieres through this series would be enough to raise eyebrows; and the ways in which Crawford establishes the context for those events makes it clear that this was a time when the programming of “serious music” was far more adventurous in Los Angeles than it was in New York (an assertion that would be affirmed by no end of reliable sources, Pierre Boulez being the one that comes to mind most quickly).

Beyond the basic nuts-and-bolts of the content, however, there are any number of episodes that make the book a “fun read.” The one I remember most vividly is an account of Karlheinz Stockhausen’s first visit to Los Angeles. In a similar vein percussionist William Kraft’s account of Boulez rehearsing a performance of “Le Marteau sans maître” comes to a climax with its description of Boulez singing the individual parts to each of their respective performers.

As might be guessed, behind those chronological nuts-and-bolts, Crawford drew on a vast accumulation of interviews, reviews, and correspondence, all in the service of establishing just the right context for every composition that figures in the history of this concert series. However, while she is faithful to all of her sources, she is not always discriminating when it comes to establishing their accuracy. For example, it is only in the chapters following the chronology that the reader learns about the frustrations of working with Igor Stravinsky when any interaction would be jealously guarded by Robert Craft. Indeed, Crawford is very generous in describing the full breadth of Craft’s achievements without calling out those achievements that never quite seemed to get things right. Even Craft himself had to admit the flaws in his project to record all of the music of Anton Webern for Columbia.

Nevertheless, given how much content Crawford harvested for this project, it is hard to take her to task for not running every iota of that content through a critical wringer. For example, had she taken the time to form her own opinions of Craft’s Columbia recordings, whether of Webern or of the madrigals of Carlo Gesualdo, she might never have brought this book to completion. Indeed, the way in which one thinks about “informed performance” has changed significantly in the decades following the end of the time-span of Crawford’s book. She probably knew this as well as anyone else, but she also knew that she had to set boundaries for herself. Within those boundaries, this book offers far more than enough to keep any reader interested in music-making activities raptly enthralled by the many events that unfold over the course of Crawford’s chronology.

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