Iona Brown led her Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra into unfamiliar territory on at the Japan-America Theater on Friday night, and staked out a handsome claim. Contemporary American music has not figured on her programs until now, to any great extent. As her vehicle of entry into this most rewarding area, John Adams’ “Shaker Loops” was an excellent choice.
Originally composed for seven solo strings and easily expandable for a larger ensemble, Adams’ marvelous invention was also, for him, a vehicle of entry. It dates from 1978, and stands as Adams’ first coming to grips with the minimalist esthetic. Eleven years later, it remains fresh and energetic: simple on its gleaming, hypnotic surface, but amazingly complex in the way it interweaves complex melodic and rhythmic fragments of varying lengths into a seamless fabric.
How far this composer has come in those 11 years! “Shaker Loops” is Adams’ purest minimalist score; in later works he works that style into a variety of contexts; minimalism has become, for him, one of a number of languages he has mastered. Yet the “Loops” is more than just a seminal work of historic interest; it is a beautiful half-hour’s worth of exuberant invention, not easy to play, very nicely done by the 24 string players of Iona Brown’s ensemble. It has also not lost its power to irritate the nonbelievers, judging from the number who came up to complain to me (why [ITAL me? [ENDITAL) during intermission.
This was the season’s final concert by this justly famous and valuable ensemble: a program entirely for strings, led by Brown, as usual, from her post as first violinist. It began with a Purcell Trio Sonata — wonderfully rich, vivid stuff from the High Baroque, its wild chromatic harmonies at least as disturbing as anything in the Adams. Vivaldi’s 4-Violin Concerto followed. a rich, flavorsome work well known in its original version and also in Bach’s transcription for four harpsichords.
The playing — as much as could be heard over the whoosh of the hall’s faulty air-conditioning system — was elegant, stylish, and refreshingly unmannered. Neither Brown nor her orchestra get very much involved with this “authentic instruments” controversy; her players play modern instruments, but with a sense of dedicated style that is proper for music of any century.
Tchaikovsky’s “Souvenir de Florence” ended the evening; I might have preferred more very old or very new music, but the work has its share of prettiness. True, the original scoring — for six players — doesn’t transfer to a larger ensemble as well as the Adams did. But Brown, very considerately, did cut the ensemble back to original proportions in certain intimate passages, notably in the slow movement. It brought the season to a brave, sonorous conclusion.