Dangle the term “modern music” in front of your average classical music listener and chances are their reaction will range anywhere from polite indifference to outright bile-spewing hatred. Even after the advent of minimalism, neo-romanticism, the “new tonality”, and scores (pardon the pun) of composers who affect to write “accessible” music for the masses, the sometimes-gritty music of the mid-20th century avant-garde refuses to go away. If anything, it’s found a more secure footing than ever, enjoying a dedicated legion of young followers for whom such music holds no terrors.

Evidence enough was demonstrated by Tuesday’s Green Umbrella concert at Walt Disney Hall. Conductor Jeffrey Milarsky, stepping in for John Adams, led members of the Los Angeles Philharmonic in a program that shone some light on an aspect of modernism often overlooked: humor.

Stockhausen’s whimsical Five Star Pieces, originally inspired by an in-joke Stockhausen would make about the growling and gurgling noises inside the belly of his young daughter, saw the Darmstadt master lightening his palate with colors straight out of Kurt Weill. Scored for winds and strings – which are seated behind the winds – this epigrammatic suite burst with color from within its narrow compass. Burlesque marches and dances jostled one after another, with a gleefulness not often associated with Stockhausen.

Then there was Oscar Bettison’s Livre des Sauvages – that’s Book of Savages, for you non-French speakers. Inspired by a pseudo Native American bit of fakery – referred to by the composer as a “proto graphic novel” by a French abbot – Bettison’s work was an outrageously zany opus that fused the sounds of previous modernists into his own voice. And a unique voice it is: think Carl Stalling meets Edgar Varese meets John Zorn, while bouncing off a caffeine high. Starting with a thumping rhythm that came crashing out of the gate, Livre des sauvages pulsated with an irrepressible energy and vitality, as well as brilliant craftsmanship.

Karlheinz Stockhausen and John Cage is a tough act to follow for a relative unknown. But Bettison has the chops to stand up on his own terms, painting his scores with colors worthy of a Klasky-Csupo cartoon.

A different kind of humor – wry and understated – was showcased by John Cage’s Concert for Piano and Orchestra. Gloria Cheng was the superb soloist, drawing from her prepared piano a Technicolor range of sonorities. Soaked in the Eastern philosophy and gamelan music he loved so well, Cage’s concerto was a reimagining of the possibilities of the genre. Scraping away the usual piano versus orchestra dynamic, he instead relishes the delicate interplay of different orchestral instruments and the piano, now riffing off each other, now inhabiting their separate worlds. This was indefatigable energy of a different sort – the ceaseless invention and probing of one of the most sensitive musicians ever.

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