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Music review: Kagel's bikes play Grand Avenue

February 23, 2010 | 12:50 pm
Brise

The subset of bicycle-themed works in classical music is small. We have nothing as artistically central as Marcel Duchamp’s ready-made of a bicycle wheel. More typical of music might be an obscure 19th century British composer Stanislaus Elliot’s “Bicycle Sonata” for piano, contemporary British composer Colin Matthews’ lovely “Alphabicycle Order” for children’s chorus and orchestra, or Flip Baber’s re-orchestration of the “Nutcracker” Suite for bike parts.

The monster of bicycle music is Mauricio Kagel’s “Eine Brise,” which the composer called a “fugitive action” for 111 cyclists performing on the open road. Monday night, 111 or so (the count wasn’t exact) pedaled past the Colburn School in the chill air as the middle work in “Celebrating Kagel,” a Monday Evening Concerts tribute to the Argentine composer who became the trickster of the postwar European avant-garde.

The truth be told, “Eine Brise” (“A Breeze”) wasn’t much for the ears. Colorfully garbed cyclists paraded along Grand Avenue making whistling, fluttering-tongued and schussing sounds and ringing bells, as prescribed in the 1996 score. But they labored uphill too slowly to produce any hoped-for Doppler-like effects. Buses across the street easily drowned them out.   

Even so, until the Tour de France adds “Eine Brise” to an Alpe d’Huez descent, Monday’s performance will have to do. And given that Kagel was a theatrical genius, what the piece did do was set a suitably eccentric tone for an evening of eccentric music. Cyclists -- some of whom were garbed in stripped leggings and feathered head gear (and that was just the guys) -- were a colorful addition to the Zipper Concert Hall crowd. The admirable Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition was on hand to lend a sense of community. Some of us were still jazzed by the news of a dramatic high-speed two-wheel chase earlier in the day, when a pair of bicycle messengers tore after a downtown bike thief.

Kagel

Given that cyclists, by nature, tend to be adventurous, the concert also may have served to help expand the new music audience, and I’m sorry they had to miss the first piece, “Dressur,” which is a percussion trio from 1967. Batty percussion music was all the rage in the ‘60s, and no one was nuttier than Kagel. Like “Eine Brise,” “Dressur,” which takes its inspiration from trained animal acts, is a series of prescribed actions.

The percussionists become role-playing chamber musicians. They interrupt each other. One attacks another with a chair. Ross Karre and Justin DeHart formed an odd-couple duo stopping and starting snappy marimba tunes. Steve Schick momentarily gave up banging various bangable items to remove his T-shirt and play his chest. He got a bigger effect, however, from the yellow clogs he put on his feet (with another pair for his hands). A carpet beater was used to spank every object in sight. I don’t know if the toy nutcracker was in tribute to composer Baber.

When Kagel died in 2008 at 76, many in the new music world were saddened (and a few relieved) that the fun had now gone out of an otherwise serious business. But we also need to be reminded that Kagel was a real composer of great invention.

His Trio in Three Movements from 1985, which ended the program, is conventional chamber music for piano trio. It’s still odd, however. The score is sectional and begins like a tango waiting to happen, but the piano gets diverted into glittery arpeggios, and the other instruments follow.

Much of the trio is a study in memorable resonances. The pianist might hit a key while stopping the string with her finger, and the violin will catch that vibration and carry it someplace else. At times I imagined a kind of abstract “Eine Brise” in slow motion, bell-ringing and whistling in a quiet, distant space.

There were, of course, wild dramatic outbursts; there always are in Kagel. He liked to be heard. And at the end, there was a passage resembling a haunted waltz. Kagel was a clown, but he was a seductively suave clown. The performance by pianist Vicki Ray, violinist Movses Pogossian and cellist Kim Scholes was sophisticated, on the slow side, and emphasized the too often overlooked beauty and elegance of Kagel’s music without underestimating the composer’s complex edge or his intricate sense of fun.

-- Mark Swed

Related story:

'Eine Brise': A bicycle (composition) built for 111

Photo: (top) Cyclists ride along Grand Avenue as part of a Monday Evening Concerts program of music by Mauricio Kagel. (below) Percussionists (left to right) Justin DeHart, Ross Karre and Steven Schick. Credit: Michael Robinson Chavez / Los Angeles Times.

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