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Review: Premiere of Victoria Bond's 'Frescoes and Ash' at LACMA

May 12, 2009 |  4:37 pm

Victoria bond 

The way I read the cheesy 1960 Italian film “The Last Days of Pompeii” is that the eruption of Vesuvius is God’s punishment for the Romans persecuting Christians.  So I sat in the Bing Theater on Monday night and waited for an earthquake to destroy the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

LACMA was still standing and Chris Burden’s “Urban Light” still shined brightly when the few of us who bothered to attend the last concert this season of the Art & Music series left the museum.  Somehow LACMA once more avoided divine fury, despite its insults to the gods of music for a program themed to the new exhibition “Pompeii and the Roman Villa: Art and Culture around the Bay of Naples.” 

It made no difference that the museum's miniscule music department once again found an imaginative way to work around a pedestrian administrative edict that every concert must hype an exhibit.  Nor that the excellent Xtet performed Italian music worth discovering, along with an engaging new work by Victoria Bond commissioned for the occasion.  Each concert at LACMA nevertheless manages to feel more dispiriting than the last.

The museum's overall dismissive attitude toward new music concerts is palpable, and the crowds get smaller and smaller.  I saw few of the regulars from the old days of the Monday Evening Concerts.  One supporter LACMA lost when it dropped that series was the patron and collector Betty Freeman, who died this year.  Her fabulous collection is being auctioned off this week at Christies.  Might that have been otherwise? 

At least, LACMA does minimally continue to support Xtet, the L.A. ensemble of varying sizes that always has fresh ideas and usually can be counted on for first-rate performances.  On Monday, it began with two 17th century pieces for solo cello and ended with the premiere of Bond’s “Frescoes and Ash.”  In between, Xtet looked at three generations of Italian composers born in the 20th Century.

Frankly, fragments of ancient Roman art, most of it based on Greek models, excavated from Pompeii don’t relate particularly well to Baroque or modern Italian music.  About the only connection I could come up with is an innate Italianate gift for fanciful decoration and great elegance.  The two ricercari by Giovanni Gabrieli, stylishly played by Roger Lebow on a Baroque cello, are engrossingly ornamented fantasies.

Luigi Dallapiccola’s Two Studies for violin and piano from 1947 and Luciano Berio’s Two Pieces for violin and piano from 1952 are examples of a formalist middle-age composer and a feisty young composer coming to terms with a quickly developing progressive postwar European music.

In both, the influence of Schoenberg can be heard.  The 27-year-old Berio had not yet found his style, but his mercurial and flamboyant nature announces that something great is on the way. Sarah Thornblade was the eloquent violinist in the Dallapiccola, Movses Pogossian the exciting virtuoso in the Berio pieces, originally written for a young Lorin Maazel (when he was still a violinist). Dzovig Markarian carefully accompanied both. 

After intermission, Ivan Fedele’s “Arcipelago Möbius” for violin, clarinet, cello and bass, received its U.S. premiere. Bond conducted (as she did her own piece).  A post-Berio composer, Fedele, born in 1953, explores the subtle edges of sound. The son of a mathematician, he chose the 19th century German mathematician who invented the Möbius strip for inspiration. In the 19-minute score, sounds, not two-dimensional surfaces, folded back upon themselves, breaking up into elaborate solos or fascinating instrumental combinations.

If much of the time a listener felt turned upside down in Fedele’s piece, Bond’s “Frescoes and Ash,” for eight players, had precisely the opposite effect.  With a sort-of “Frescoes at an Exhibition,” she musically describes seven Pompeiian frescoes (though only one happens to be in the LACMA show); slides of each accompanied the performance.

Her touch is light and compelling.  Street musicians were enlivened by a hint of klezmer.  A marine mosaic was watery in a Debussian way.  “Scenes from a Comedy” for clarinet and percussion contained music-hall pratfalls.  The last movement, “Ash: Awareness of Mortality,” created a quiet, moody Coplandesque glow.  Here an American muses on ancient life and its tragedy.

Bond’s wistful mood proved just right for LACMA.  The place right now needs all the musical help it can get. 

Finally, anyone who wanted to take in the exhibition, concert and perhaps a meal might have looked for a "music lovers special."  At one time a concert ticket also got you into the museum; now it's a separate admission.  And the Patina Group closed its restaurant and café grill an hour before the concert (even though both were advertised to stay open until 8 p.m.). 

-- Mark Swed

Photo: Victoria Bond conducts Xtet in the premiere of her "Frescos and Ashes" Monday night at Los Angeles County Museum of Art.  Credit: Christine Cotter/Los Angeles Times.