Pacific Festival

Some good new music in a good new locale: that sums up the events  at California State University Los Angeles (CSULA from now on), as the three-day First Pacific Contemporary Music Festival ended on Saturday night, with everybody on stage thanking everybody else, and a capacity crowd in the school’s 400-or-so-seat Playhouse cheering them all. The school had never before dabbled in concert production on so large a scale; composer and faculty member Byong-kon Kim, who organized this festival, has done an impressive piece of work.
CSULA’s music department operates in the shadow of the school’s huge statue of Confucius; not surprisingly, therefore, it pays a fair amount of attention to music of Oriental composers or, to be more specific, music from the whole circumference of the Pacific Rim. A second festival, in which the school will again participate, is set for June, 1990 in Korea.
This first festival involved the sterling services of the California E.A.R. Unit, whose praises have filled this space before, an ensemble of the region’s phenomenally gifted new-music performers, virtuosos often on more than just a single instrument. (On Friday’s concert, for example, violinist Robin Lorentz and cellist Erika Duke doubled on their own respective instruments and, in one work, on spraycans. Arthur Jarvinen, composer of the work in question, performed in it both as percussionist and on a chromatic harmonica.)
A scheduling conflict kept me from the first concert. The two I heard offered a neat selection of Pacific Rim music, along with some out-of-area interlopers, possibly for ballast. Among the latter were George Crumb, whose “Idyll for the Misbegotten,” a gorgeously scored (solo flute, wondrously played by Dorothy Stone, 3 percussionists) piece in Crumb’s most magical, mystical, atmospheric style; Stephen Albert (Pulitzer laureate a few years back), whose overextended, mealy-conservative song-cycle “To Wake the Dead” had me fighting off sleep; Elliot Carter, whose “Triple Duos” amounted to another large slice of his usual self-indulgent complexity.
Against these the Pacific composers more than held their own. On Friday Erika Duke played Toru Takemitzu’s “Orion”; on Saturday, Isang Yun’s “Nore,” both beautifully formed, throbbing, intensely colorful pieces. On Friday harpist Ruth Inglefield played Juan Orrego-Salas’ “Variations on a Chant,” large-scale, inventive music full of unusual effects for the solo instrument; another harp solo on Saturday, Byong-kon Kim’s “Sori,” was not as far-reaching in its experimentation, perhaps, but displayed a nice range of coloration.
Friday’s concert began with a strong ensemble piece, “In Tension,” by Elena Katz-Chernin, a Soviet-born composer now living in Australia: hectic, energetic music, fascinatingly built out of abrasive small fragments. But a set of “Episodes” for piano, by Taiwan’s Tsang-Houei Hsu, nicely played by Gloria Cheng, indicates that the Orient, too, has carved out its colonies on Windham Hill.
Those were, for this listener the musical highs and lows; let the record also show, for those fonder than I of Carter’s kind of charmless note-spinning, that the ensemble under Rand Steiger’s energetic direction did itself proud. And that Arthur Jarvinen’s “Egyptian Two-Step,” for all the damage those spraycans may have done to the ozone layer, has an agreeable kickiness that I haven’t heard in his other works. And that the members of the E.A.R. Unit,  together or separately,  constitute one of those local treasures that makes it possible to look forward to new-music events with assurance and delight.