Rage Against the Classical Machine

Christopher Russell leads the OCHSA orchestra into new terrain

From San Francisco's proto-punk Kronos Quartet to Manhattan's axe-grinding American Composer's Orchestra, almost any group specializing in contemporary classical music can claim some kind of cult status. But OC has its own new-music factory that works hard punching out rep that's more raging than aging, and almost nobody's heard of it. That's because it's a high school orchestra.

"I haven't taken a pulse on having a 'cult' following, but I doubt one exists," says Christopher Russell, chairman of the instrumental music department at the Orange County High School of the Arts (OCHSA). There, in a Vatican-ized corner of the Los Alamitos High School campus, he leads a student chamber orchestra that bites off tough modern repertoire—proportionately more than most professionals do—and gives today's composers more local exposure than they'd otherwise get.

"Usually we attract people on a concert-to-concert basis on top of the base of parents and friends," he says.

Cultists, take note. This week, the OCHSA orchestra is doing "Three Mob Pieces" by Austrian wild man H.K. Gruber, "Le Tombeau de Liberace" by American pop-trash junkie Michael Daugherty (with faculty pianist Susan High as soloist), and the West Coast premiere of "I: A Meditation on Iona" for percussion and strings by the comparatively tame religiose Scotsman James MacMillan. Already this season, they've given the U.S. premiere of British musician John McCabe's "Six-Minute Symphony," played a trio by Cornell University's Steven Stucky in honor of his big Five-O, and premiered a composition by a 7-year-old OCHSA student.

And that's only three concerts. If Russell's kids are deep in the purple of new music, it's because he thinks they'd better learn to play 21st-century music for 21st-century audiences.

"When I was working on my graduate degree in conducting, I did a lot of contemporary music, and it was an ordeal," he recalls. "I couldn't blame the orchestra because they had no experience playing new music. But I told myself that if I could ever work with a youth group, we would do both the standard repertoire and the music of our time. In that way, these students can come into it with no blinders on and learn the language of new music."

It has already paid off. Last summer, the OCHSA took third place in the American Symphony Orchestra League's ASCAP Awards for Adventurous Programming—"adventurous" being classical's euphemism for playing composers who haven't earned death certificates yet. Though it was a youth-division prize, it put the OCHSA in the same class with such grown-ups as the LA Philharmonic, the Cleveland Orchestra and the American Composer's Orchestra.

Since starting the group four years ago, Russell has led it in music by Arvo Pärt, Gyorgy Kurtag, Orkney hermit Peter Maxwell Davies and Grateful Dead charity case Robert Simpson. Last spring, they played the U.S. premiere of Simpson's powerfully gloomy Seventh Symphony like pros and, on the same night, did the world premiere of a short piece from local composer Joseph Klein.

"The students have gotten so they expect to play something new every year," he says. "They like to be challenged. And doing premieres adds a lot to it."

On Tuesday, the OCHSA revisits Gruber's "Three Mob Pieces," having given its West Coast premiere in October 1998 in an LA Philharmonic Green Umbrella concert. "The kids liked it so much they asked to play it again," says Russell. If people know Gruber at all, it's usually for his megamultimedia "pandemonium" Frankenstein!! and over-the-top personality. "Mob Pieces," with tempo markings like "bossa nova" and "soft-medium rock," dates from the late '70s, and Russell calls it a cross between Bach's Brandenburg Concertos and the Beatles.

They're also doing Daugherty's "Le Tombeau de Liberace." A keyboard tour de force on different aspects of the pompadoured rhinestone pianist, it was played just last month by the Detroit Symphony, where Daugherty is resident composer. He wrote it in 1994 right after finishing his "Metropolis Symphony" (inspired by the "Superman" comic strip). It may be that he spends too much time reading tabloids because his rep sheet includes "Elvis Everywhere" for the Kronos Quartet and three Elvis impersonators, "Jackie O" for the Houston Grand Opera, and the percussion concerto "UFO."

Russell is looking at expanding his group to full symphony size and mulling over ambitious repertory by Witold Lutoslawski, John Adams, Christopher Rouse and Per Nørgaard. Trying to outclass the Pacific Symphony, are we?

"I'm just looking for good pieces," he says. "If I feel it's good music, then it's worth trying to program."

CHRISTOPHER RUSSELL AND THE ORANGE COUNTY HIGH SCHOOL OF THE ARTS CHAMBER ORCHESTRA PLAY AT THE MARGARET A. WEBB PERFORMING ARTS CENTER, LOS ALAMITOS HIGH SCHOOL, 3591 CERRITOS AVE., LOS ALAMITOS, (714) 536-8597. TUES., 7:30 P.M. $5.

 
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