Los Angeles: Monday Evening Concerts Face The Future

If you think that you have to have gallons of publicity and a well-developed knack for the commercial to survive in Los Angeles, contemplate a hardy, high-minded, world-famous concert series called Monday Evening Concerts.

The audience is small, the budget is tiny, the profile is low, and the music is thoroughly, uncompromisingly contemporary. Yet the series has been around in one form or another continuously since 1939—which in this city of constant turnover is quite a feat. Only the far more conservative Coleman Chamber Concerts in Pasadena can top MEC’s record of longevity in the area of chamber music here. Even for those who didn’t attend or stopped going, it was comforting to know that MEC was still around.

There was a moment, though, when it looked as if the Monday Evening Concerts were finally going down for the count. In the spring of 2005, the Los Angeles County Art Museum, which had housed the concerts in its gloomy, acoustically undistinguished Leo S. Bing Theatre for 40 years, decided to pull the plug on most of its music programming. MEC was given one more season and that would be it. Not only that, but almost as if on cue, the director of MEC for the last 34 of those years, composer Dorrance Stalvey, passed away just after the announcement was made—and just after he had finished planning what looked like it was to be MEC’s final season.

But no, the story isn’t over—at least for now. The musical press in Los Angeles decried the County Art Museum’s decision to abandon the series. A new advisory board, directed by Justin Urcis and containing figures like Stalvey’s widow Valerie, composer William Kraft, and former L.A. Philharmonic chief Ernest Fleischmann, was formed.

As a result, MEC—now an independent organization—has risen off the canvas again, albeit in greatly reduced form, announcing a 2006-07 season consisting of four concerts in two locations downtown. (By comparison, the 2001-02 season featured twelve concerts, and 2003-04 had nine). The programming for the last three concerts has been entrusted to three internationally-known “curators”—Esa-Pekka Salonen, Kent Nagano, and Steven Stucky—while the first concert on December 11 will be a memorial tribute to Stalvey.

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For the whole fascinating story of the early years of the Monday Evening Concerts, read Dorothy Lamb Crawford’s invaluable Evenings On And Off The Roof (University of California Press).

Originally called Evenings on the Roof, at first the concerts were literally held on a roof—the small, add-on second-story studio of Peter Yates, built for him by the modernist Viennese architect Rudolph Schindler. Yates was a quintessential fish-out-of-water—an independent thinker with highbrow tastes in a city that had little use for intellectuals, a proud amateur in a circle of professional artists, a cheerleader for new music operating in a place that, then as now, mainly worshipped movie stars. He toiled away at a bureaucratic, low-paying job by day while organizing Evenings on the Roof in his spare time, citing the similarly-divided Charles Ives as a role model for not compromising one’s art to commerce. Like Ives, Yates drove himself to exhaustion and illness with his double life.

The first concert in April 1939 was an all-Bartók affair—this at a time when the Hungarian composer was still barely-known in America—for an audience of 19 people. But Yates’s policy of presenting new, old, and neglected chamber music caught on among the small intellectual audience scattered around the sprawling city. Highly skilled musicians, bored by the movie scores that they had to play in the studios for a living, flocked to Yates’s roof to perform challenging music for almost no pay. While there was plenty of contemporary music on hand, Yates also made sure that the past was well represented; there were extensive surveys of Beethoven and some of the earliest attempts at period-performances of J. S. Bach and his predecessors.

Hardly anyone else was presenting this mix of repertoire in the region then, and word spread around the country and Europe about this brave little series. Otto Klemperer, then the conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, attended the early concerts. The music of Schoenberg, who taught at UCLA and lived in Brentwood, was heard on this series with more frequency than probably any other place on earth during his lifetime. Indeed, Yates was lucky to have started his concerts at a time when sunny Southern California had become a place of refuge for gifted artists fleeing the Nazis.

Located on Micheltorena Street, a steep, out-of-the-way side street in the Silverlake district, the “roof” was abandoned after May 1941, and the series moved from auditorium to auditorium before finally settling into the then-new Bing Theatre in 1965. In 1954, Yates turned the leadership of Evenings on the Roof over to Lawrence Morton, taking the name with him. Since the series had taken place on Monday nights since its second season, it became known simply as Monday Evening Concerts when Morton took over.

Under this crusty, diminutive Minnesotan who had been a crusading music critic in town, MEC became Stravinsky Central, often showcasing the chamber works of the Russian émigré genius who lived above the Sunset Strip. MEC racked up no less than twelve Stravinsky world premieres, usually tiny chips from the workbench or re-arrangements of existing music, but still enough to give Morton bragging rights. In turn, MEC (and Evenings on the Roof before it) greatly influenced Stravinsky himself; the twelve-tone music that he heard there, as well as the performances of early music, recharged his creative batteries and helped usher in his final, forward-looking serial period.

Stravinsky’s right-hand-man, Robert Craft, used MEC as a staging ground for the long, pioneering string of new-music and early-music recordings that he made for Columbia in the 1950s and ’60s. (A great souvenir of that time is the photo on the back cover of Craft’s first Gesualdo album of the MEC singers—including the young, then-unknown Marilynn (sic) Horne—sitting on Stravinsky’s front lawn). Pierre Boulez, Luciano Berio, Luigi Nono, and Karlheinz Stockhausen were heard for the first time in America during the Morton years. Michael Tilson Thomas, still a student at USC, became the resident wunderkind at these concerts in the mid-1960s just before his rise to fame.

Yet even in its Golden Age, keeping MEC going was always a struggle—maintaining quality and adventure on a shoestring budget, and engaging in sometimes acerbic battles with the local press. The Los Angeles Times’ chief music critic from 1947 to 1965, Albert Goldberg, often had caustic things to say about certain works that were out on the edge (On Stockhausen’s electronic Gesang der Junglinge, he said, “If this is music, it’s time to drop the H-bomb.”). Morton gave as good as he got; at one concert in 1956, he took the extraordinary (for an impresario) step of making a speech accusing Goldberg of misrepresenting “the facts” of a concert that featured the controversial U.S. premiere of Nono’s Canti per 13. In 1963, when Goldberg’s antipathy toward the serial music heard at MEC produced a chorus of written amens from noted local composers and musicians, Morton defended the avant-garde in a piece that appeared in the LA Times.

Under Stalvey, who succeeded Morton in 1971, MEC’s agenda was eventually limited to 20th century music, and it became a presenting organization, with out-of-town groups performing most of the programs. Following a near-fatal financial crisis, the County Art Museum assumed stewardship of the concerts in 1985 while Stalvey doggedly stayed on as director until his death, ultimately logging more years in the job than Yates and Morton combined.

By the 1980s and ’90s, one had to accept the possibility that perhaps the contemporary music world had passed MEC by. Minimalism had caught fire, a revolt against serialism and academic music of all kinds was underway, and yet the programming at MEC was slow to catch on. There was a vital, exciting new-music scene developing at CalArts in Valencia, whose annual spring Contemporary Music Festivals of the late 1970s and early ’80s were attracting national attention before they ran out of steam at the end of the decade. The Los Angeles Philharmonic New Music Group’s concerts became the main platform in which to hear leading and rising figures in the avant-garde and remains so in the future-world setting of the new Walt Disney Concert Hall downtown. Newer series like Southwest Chamber Music and Jacaranda took up MEC’s abandoned mix of old and new using local players and made it work anew.

Now and then in recent years, MEC would rise out of its torpor and find someone or something new and arresting—like the personable, eccentric Italian pianist Marino Formenti—and the final concert of 2004-05, a juxtaposition of the latest works of Morton Subotnick and Paul Dresher by the iconoclastic California E.A.R. Unit, drew a large, demonstrative crowd. Ultimately, though, it became depressing to go to the dimly-lit, cavernous, amenities-lacking Bing and stare at the rows upon rows of empty seats and smatterings of hard-core aficionados whose polite applause barely rose above the silence.

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How will the resurrection of Monday Evening Concerts fare downtown? For one thing, the physical facilities are going to be much better. The locale for the Stalvey concert, REDCAT (an acronym for CalArts’ new downtown showplace, Roy and Edna Disney/ CalArts Theatre), is a versatile, high-tech black-box theatre in the basement of Disney Hall, with a state-of-the-art sound system and an informal coffee bar/book store in the lobby. The three “curated” concerts are in the Colburn School’s Zipper Concert Hall, a one-block walk up 2nd Street from REDCAT and a superb, compact facility with warm, woodsy acoustics.

Stucky’s Feb. 19, 2007, program will feature works by six young composers from Mexico, Canada, and the USA—Andrew Norman, James Matheson, Sean Shepherd, Philippe Bodin, Ana Lara, and Brian Current. At this writing, Salonen plans to showcase the music of fellow Scandinavians Kimmo Hakola and Rolf Wallin on April 16. Yet of the four programs, it is Nagano’s (March 19) that most closely embraces the Yates/Morton philosophies, juxtaposing works by living composers with classics by J.S. Bach and so help him, something as politically incorrect as Bach/Busoni. Another positive feature is a return to the Yates/Morton policy of mostly using expert local musicians.

For Kraft, who took part in some of MEC’s groundbreaking concerts of the 1950s and ’60s, the main issue is what MEC means in a multi-cultural city where there is no longer a Stravinsky sitting in the front row of the hall, conveying a silent sense of authority that this is the place in town where new music is happening. “It’s identity that we’re really concerned about, what will set the Monday Evening Concerts apart from others now that we have so much competition,” Kraft says. “The Monday Evening Concerts established the identity of the location, rather than the other way around. Now we have the Zipper and REDCAT, which are occupied by many ensembles. We don’t have the advantage of being the only act in town.”

Nor will the current programming formula necessarily extend beyond 2006-07. “We’re discussing the future,” says Kraft. “This first season is curated—that was Ernest’s idea. There’s the issue of continuing the curating of programs, and the other is to try to get it more focused in L.A., as a Los Angeles-based operation as it was before. I don’t know what we’re going to settle on as the location. It’s in flux.”

Who knows whether the new slimmed-down MEC will be able to compete with or complement the other new music presenters in town, let alone make history again. But at the very least, we repeat, it’s good to know it’s still around.

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Richard S. Ginell is a regular contributor to the Los Angeles Times, Daily Variety, and All-Music Guide and is the Los Angeles correspondent for American Record Guide. In an earlier life, he was chief music critic of the Los Angeles Daily News for 12 years.