It could be said that Los Angeles has conspired, by countless means and for many decades, to make itself into as hospitable an environment for new music as possible.
L.A. has had a freewheeling attitude from its inception. As early as 1925, around the time when John Cage was about to enter Los Angeles High School, the downtown Biltmore Hotel was playing host to Henry Cowell’s “New Music Society of California,” which championed works by Carl Ruggles, Leo Ornstein, Dane Rudhyar, Arnold Schoenberg, and Edgard Varèse. By the late ’20s even the Hollywood Bowl was programming performances of “shockingly new music” by Béla Bartók, Arthur Honegger, Schoenberg, and Igor Stravinsky.
In the 1930s a vibrant jazz scene coalesced around Central Avenue, fostering talents such as Charles Mingus and Buddy Collette. At the same time, as a sanctuary city for some of Europe’s most celebrated artists and intellectuals fleeing Germany and eventually Europe, scores of exiled musicians were transplanting themselves into the film industry, local orchestras, and conservatories. With people like Schoenberg, Lotte Lehmann, and Ernst Krenek came a progressive outlook that persists to this day.
The Evenings on the Roof chamber series was founded in 1939 on the Rudolph Schindler-designed rooftop of Peter and Frances Yates’s Silverlake home, renamed the Monday Evening Concerts in 1954. It’s there that Schoenberg and Stravinsky famously avoided each other. Today MEC is still thriving and presenting uncompromising programs to capacity crowds. And yet it represents just one of the many Los Angeles contemporary music success stories.
I am a transplant to L.A, having grown up in New Jersey. As a child I studied with a painstakingly thorough and patient teacher, Isabelle Sant’Ambrogio, of Bloomfield. She assigned me exercises from Old World technical treatises such as Tobias Matthay’s The Act of Touch in All Its Diversity and readings from Josef and Rosina Lhévinne’s Basic Principles in Pianoforte Playing, plus weekly drills from George Wedge’s Applied Harmony and Keyboard Harmony. She also gave me my first assignments in the newest music from her era: pieces by Paul Creston, Walter Piston, and, most presciently, Aeolian Harp by Henry Cowell. I came to L.A. for the prospect of UCLA and working with Aube Tzerko, a former student and assistant to Artur Schnabel whose analytical insight into scores of any era was legendary. Though it was the canonic works of the 18th through early 20th century that I focused on with him during my studies, I later sought Mr. Tzerko’s wisdom just before auditioning for Pierre Boulez’s Paris-based Ensemble Intercontemporain. My intention was to play just three of their required works for him: Bach’s C#-minor Fugue in five voices, the first movement of Beethoven’s Op. 111, and Ravel’s Scarbo. After a few hours on that came the question, “What else is on the list?” Only after several more hours at the piano would he let me go, only after I had made sense—for him and for myself—of the remaining audition repertoire: the opening cadenza to Boulez’s Éclat, Stockhausen’s Klavierstúcke vii, Schoenberg’s Op. 33a and b, and the third of Bartók’s Op. 18 Studies. Even more enduring for me than Mr. Tzerko’s insights into works that he had never heard before (with the exception of the Schoenberg) was his resolute quest to understand the rhetoric of music and how best to express it. I made it into a group of three finalists, but ultimately did not win the EIC job. So I stayed in L.A.
In the early ’80s I received an invitation from Monday Evening Concerts directors Lawrence Morton and Dorrance Stalvey to perform with the MEC ensemble, giving me my first professional opportunity to play new music. The engagement marks the beginnings of a lifetime dedicated to collaborating with composers and playing, then commissioning, their music. I now wonder if it may have been the pianist Leonard Stein, longtime assistant and editor to Arnold Schoenberg, who recommended me to the venerated series, since I had recently performed the Op. 19 Sechs kleine Klavierstücke for a concert he had produced at the Arnold Schoenberg Institute. If so, it would be Leonard who some decades later would come to plot a second life-changing opportunity for me and three of his other protégés in the form of the Piano Spheres concert series. More on that later.
As much as I “took” to deciphering difficult new scores (I came of age when tonality had not yet begun its reascendence), my life’s course has been largely about Los Angeles having simply imposed its will on me. As an “extra” with the Los Angeles Philharmonic for twenty years, I played beside the indomitable principal keyboard Zita Carno and effectively coincided with the tenures of team Esa-Pekka Salonen, as conductor, and Steven Stucky, as resident composer and new music advisor. Given their rather frequent programming of works that required two keyboards, this means that I was there for Witold Lutosławski’s Symphony No. 3 with Salonen in 1984 on his first visit to the orchestra. I was there to work with György Ligeti in Aventures, with Luciano Berio when he conducted Sinfonia, with Kaija Saariaho, Pierre Boulez, and John Adams every time they came to town, and on countless Green Umbrella programs. The orchestra took me on international tours, enlisted me on recordings of Lutosławski’s Third, Salonen’s L.A. Variations, and Bartók’s Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta, and engaged me as a Messiaen soloist first with Zubin Mehta and then with Pierre Boulez. These were extraordinary experiences for me as a young pianist. As I became steeped in the culture of the LA Phil, I took pride in being part of its boldly progressive ethos—and adopted it, as did the city as a whole.
The monthly salons hosted in the 1980s by the music patron Betty Freeman in her Beverly Hills home were rarefied yet wonderfully informal affairs. Surrounded by artworks of Sam Francis, Roy Lichtenstein, David Hockney, Frank Stella, Dan Flavin, and more, young local composers would present their music, and then, after a brief interval comprising cocktails and homemade pasta, an established composer would do the same, each in conversation with the crusty late critic Alan Rich. The storied conductor, composer, pianist, and lexicographer Nicolas Slonimsky reportedly did not miss a single salon, at which the likes of John Harbison, Joan La Barbara, Conlon Nancarrow, Elliott Carter, Steve Reich, Anthony Davis, John Adams, William Kraft, György Ligeti, Pierre Boulez, Witold Lutosławski, younger composers Carl Stone, Rand Steiger, Laura Karpman, and many others shared their music as they did nowhere else. As new music benefaction goes, Betty was legendary (she even funded my first commission for a piece by Mark Applebaum), and her salons cemented an enduring community of hardcore new music devotees in L.A. But she was just one of a number of generous new music lovers in this city whose patronage then and now has made big things possible.
Los Angeles continues to imprint its forward-looking ideology on unsuspecting patrons, musicians, and audiences. In recent years, the city has become even more of a mecca for composers and musicians with its well-documented status as a place where new music is created, cultivated, and embraced. I remember the Australian composer Brett Dean being stunned at walking out to address a packed Green Umbrella crowd in Walt Disney Concert Hall, saying that it was largest audience for a new music concert he had ever seen, and by far the most enthusiastic. That was 2006, and things have only gotten better.
For their current centennial season the LA Phil is presenting no fewer than 54 commissions, 58 premieres, and music by 61 living composers. Employment opportunities are still plentiful in film and TV (and now video games), and these draw diverse, multifaceted composers, while area orchestras and opera companies beyond the deeply rooted LA Phil and LA Opera fill their ranks from the local freelance pool. There is work to be had and new music to played with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, Long Beach Symphony, Long Beach Opera, Kaleidoscope Chamber Orchestra, Pasadena Symphony, New West Symphony, Pacific Symphony, Southeast Symphony, and Santa Monica Symphony. Orchestras and chamber series alike restrict their rehearsal schedules to evenings in order to accommodate the sort of musician who records a Star Wars soundtrack with John Williams by day and attends a Harrison Birtwistle rehearsal for the Jacaranda series that night.
The Santa Monica-based Jacaranda series is prominent amongst L.A.’s adventurous presenters of contemporary chamber music and draws big audiences for its imaginative programs of contemporary fare. Now in its 16th season, the fall concerts feature pianist Kathleen Supové playing music of Dylan Mattingly and the Lyris Quartet playing works by Pavel Haas, Georg Friedrich Haas, and Jörg Widmann. New music thrives as well at venues such as Monk Space, in recent initiatives such as The Industry, HEAR NOW festival, and WasteLAnd, and with the inspired programming of young ensembles wild Up, Hocket, Brightwork, Aperture Duo, and Panic Duo.
Piano Spheres, a recital series devoted to new music for the piano, was the creation of Leonard Stein, the founding director of the Arnold Schoenberg Institute. Leonard taught seminars about Schoenberg for the University of Southern California, where four new music-minded pianists—Vicki Ray, Mark Robson, Susan Svrcek, and myself—were enrolled as doctoral students. (The ASI was housed in a jewel of a modernist structure, where, especially affecting, was the replica of Schoenberg’s study, complete with piano and writing desk on which sat his bulging Rolodex.). It was the four of us whom he invited to join his new venture with the mission of exploring the far reaches of the repertoire and creating the piano literature of the future. Leonard died in 2004, but Piano Spheres has continued on and is now celebrating its 25th season. Our programs are as varied as we are, and by now we have presented more than 80 world or U.S. premieres and commissioned a minimum of one new work per year. For the four of us, the significance of Piano Spheres in our artistic lives, and the fulfillment it has given each of us, cannot be overstated. At this quarter-century milestone, we have a growing list of emerging pianists whom we are now welcoming to the series, as Leonard did for us.
Having spent all of my working life and more in Los Angeles, I recall that during my coming-of-age a frequent topic of conversation was the friendly feud between Los Angeles and New York for primacy in the music world. L.A. has long borne the indignity of being broadly dismissed as hopelessly uncultivated. Many continued to feel as Otto Klemperer did, who upon his 1933 arrival as the new conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic had lamented, “My God, my God, I didn’t know that such a lack of intellectuality existed.”
As the city and its musical institutions began maturing into what they are today, I recall bold new initiatives frequently responded to with a self-congratulatory “this could only happen in L.A.” By now it is accepted wisdom that L.A. is adventurous, ambitious, and generous towards new music.
The gloating has diminished. Our new music calendar is indeed full, lively, and provocative, but I doubt that this progress could have happened “only in L.A.” Let’s hope not. But luckily for L.A., the seeds were planted long ago for its eventual transformation from “cultural desert” into a target destination for composers and musicians. The word is out that L.A. can provide not just a bounty of opportunities in new music, but a city-wide sensibility that inspires its musicians to create new ones.