Otto Klemperer, Arnold Schoenberg, Ernst Toch, Santa Monica Hills
In the mountains of Santa Monica: Otto Klemperer, Prince Hubertus von Löwenstein, Arnold Schoenberg, and Ernst Toch | Credit: UCLA, Ernst Toch Archive (Rights: Courtesy of the Ernst Toch Archive, 1, Music Library Special Collections, University of California, Los Angeles)

Los Angeles and its glittery Hollywood lifestyle was once a favorite target for sophisticated East Coast sarcasm and cultural condescension.

“What’s the difference between L.A. and yogurt?” goes the old quip. “Yogurt has an active culture!”

The days of smug dismissals of L.A. are long gone, though. At the top of the cultural pyramid, many critics have recognized the Los Angeles Philharmonic as the most dynamic classical and contemporary music organization in America. Renowned for risk-taking programing, illustrious conductors, and top-flight musicianship, the orchestra also maintains landmark status for its performing venue — the Frank Gehry-designed Walt Disney Concert Hall.

Yet if the LA Phil is the jewel in the crown, there is also a long-established, vibrant, but much less publicized contemporary music scene in Los Angeles led by the venerable Monday Evening Concerts series, which began in the late 1930s. Those roots have branched into a number of current organizations that grew from the same network of players.

Igor Stravinsky, Lawrence Morton
Igor Stravinsky (center, seated) with (from left) conductor Robert Craft, composer Franz Waxman, and Ojai Festival director Lawrence Morton after the Los Angeles premiere of Agon at UCLA's Royce Hall, June 17, 1957 | Courtesy of Ojai Music Festival

At the height of the Great Depression, when America was reeling in despair, Hollywood thrived, attracting a remarkable community of artists, composers, musicians, writers, and dancer/choreographers from famous artistic scenes, from Vienna to Paris, London, and New York. There was work in the movies, and suddenly Los Angeles was a hub of artists with international recognition.

“It was a completely transplanted community, with the Hollywood film and recording industry as its nexus,” observes Ara Guzelimian, artistic and executive director of the Ojai Music Festival. “Together they kick-started the idea of cultural Los Angeles and at the same time fostered a new audience. It was a cultural jolt.”

Stravinsky's star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame
Igor Stravinsky's star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame | Credit: Jim Farber

Of equal importance, Hollywood offered a safe haven for artists fleeing the rise of Nazi Germany. The movie studios attracted an emigre musical community that included Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Miklós Rózsa, Franz Waxman (who also founded the Los Angeles Music Festival in 1947), Hanns Eisler, Ernst Toch, Max Steiner (director of RKO’s and later Warner Bros.’ music departments), Ernst Krenek, Erich Zeisl, Igor Stravinsky, and Arnold Schoenberg. Schoenberg, who was also a famous teacher and who held composition seminars at UCLA (where the music school’s main concert venue today is Schoenberg Hall), would go on to tutor the next generation of film composers, including David Raksin and Leonard Rosenman, as well as budding iconoclasts John Cage and Lou Harrison.

“The musicians that came to Los Angeles in the 1930s immediately found work populating the Hollywood studio orchestras and, to a lesser degree, the Los Angeles Philharmonic,” Guzelimian continues. “There were star musicians like Jascha Heifetz, Arthur Rubinstein, and Gregor Piatigorsky and star conductors like Bruno Walter and Otto Klemperer. You had great writers like Bertolt Brecht, Thomas Mann, and Aldous Huxley. It was a culturally rich environment.”

Conductor, composer, and writer Leonard Slatkin is a child of Hollywood’s Golden Age. His father was the violinist and conductor Felix Slatkin, his mother the renowned and formidable cellist Eleanor Aller. In addition to their work as elite studio musicians, they founded the Hollywood String Quartet (with violinist Paul Shure and violist Paul Robyn), which became the first L.A. ensemble to achieve international status, partly as a result of its multiple recordings, including a stellar 1950 performance of Arnold Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht, Op. 4. And when the Quartet needed to supplement its forces with a pianist, it turned to Eleanor’s brother (Leonard’s uncle) Victor Aller, whose severed hand, incidentally, plays Max Steiner’s demonic piano solo in the 1946 horror film The Beast With Five Fingers, starring Peter Lorre.

Felix Slatkin conducting Frank Sinatra
Frank Sinatra with Felix Slatkin

“In the late 1930s, L.A. was the best place to go for musicians because you could earn a good living working for the studios,” Slatkin observes. “When my father [who, at 12, was the youngest student ever admitted to the Curtis Institute of Music] arrived in Los Angeles, he immediately became the concertmaster at 20th Century Fox. At that point, there were 11 film studios, and each had its own full-time orchestra. Musicians made good pay, with contracts and benefits. That was a rare thing during the Depression. Playing for the studios also allowed them enough time to devote to other projects, which is when they formed the Hollywood String Quartet.”

Between 1930 and 1945, the Hollywood studios produced more than 7,500 feature films, all of which required musical scoring. At the same time, Slatkin points out, highly skilled musicians were also in demand to record instrumental music and popular song albums for major labels, like Capitol Records.

“At that time, L.A. was a very insular community that people only thought of in terms of the film industry.” Slatkin explains. “The musicians, as well as the composers, that worked in Hollywood were looked down on as second-class citizens [in the international classical music community]. But in our time, it’s finally come around that those people really knew what they were doing. If you listen to the orchestras of MGM under Alfred Newman, Warner Bros. with Korngold, or RKO with Max Steiner, those orchestras were remarkable, each with its own personality.

The Oakland Symphony's closes its 2021-22 Season with guest conductor Leonard Slatkin.
Leonard Slatkin | Credit: Nico Rodamel

“If you listen to the recordings by the Hollywood String Quartet, they’re remarkable. They worked directly with Stravinsky and Schoenberg. As a kid, I was surrounded by that every day, going to the studios, having people come over to the house when the Quartet was rehearsing or having Sinatra come over to do some work with my father, who conducted his recordings at Capitol Records. I was too young to really understand it. But now, after all these years, I look back and realize how amazing it was.”

Amid this artistically rich environment, an unusual couple emerged — Peter Yates, a self-described “passionate musical amateur,” and his concert pianist wife, Frances Mullen. Devoted followers of modernism, they decided to start a contemporary music series. And they owned the perfect place to present it, their beautiful modern home designed by another notable Los Angeles emigre — architect Rudolph Schindler.

On April 23, 1939, the first Evenings on the Roof concert took place at 1735 Micheltorena St. Admission to the all-Béla Bartók program was 50 cents, and that first audience consisted of 19 curious but avid listeners. The program included Bartók’s Second Violin Sonata, selections from For ChildrenRomanian Folk Dances for violin and piano (arr. Szekely), and the Piano Sonata. Mullen was the pianist, with Orline Burrow on violin.

“Their goal was not profitability,” Ara Guzelimian explains. “The Evenings on the Roof concerts offered a level of artistic independence that was in short supply within the Hollywood studio system. The series offered more avant-garde-minded musicians the chance to play complex music they could really sink their teeth into, especially after recording endless movie scores, pop songs, and commercials.”

Then came World War II. The Evenings continued, but sporadically and in a variety of locations. But it was in the period following the war that the contemporary music scene really began to take root and branch out.

Lawrence Morton, Ojai Music Festival
Lawrence Morton at Ojai | Courtesy of Ojai Music Festival

The first Ojai Music Festival, founded by John Bauer, was held on May 4, 1947. The first concert featured French baritone Martial Singher with pianist Paul Ulanowsky in a recital that covered a wide-ranging repertoire, from Jean-Philippe Rameau to Maurice Ravel. There is a famous photograph that shows Stravinsky emerging from the army surplus tent that served as a dressing room. The festival’s first music director was Thor Johnson. A year later a young music critic and arranger named Lawrence Morton became the festival’s first program annotator and, in 1954, its first official artistic director.

Morton (1904–1987) was born in Duluth, Minnesota, where he studied music and graduated from the University of Minnesota. For several years, he supported himself in Chicago and New York by playing the organ for silent movies before moving to Los Angeles in 1937. His musical abilities gained him work as an arranger in the Hollywood film studios, and at the same time, he contributed critical articles to such publications as the Musical Quarterly and Modern Music.

A champion of contemporary music, Morton had long attended the Evenings on the Roof concerts. The same year he took the helm at the Ojai Music Festival, he became director of Evenings on the Roof, which he promptly renamed Monday Evening Concerts. When he died in 1987, his obituary in The New York Times described him this way: “A friend and partisan of Igor Stravinsky, Mr. Morton advanced the cause of all forms of modern music, but especially the rigorous and rationalist sort derived from the European immigrants who clustered in Southern California from the 1930s to the 1950s.”

Morton’s impact on the musical landscape of Los Angeles was, to say the least, significant, as were the alliances he forged with key figures in the music community, such as Los Angeles Philharmonic Executive Director Ernest Fleischmann, composers Stravinsky and Pierre Boulez, a wunderkind local pianist named Michael Tilson Thomas, and the Ojai Music Festival’s future artistic director, Guzelimian.

Pianist Leonard Stein was another force who helped to shape the contemporary music scene in Los Angeles. His teacher, Richard Buhlig, gave the first performance, in Berlin, of Schoenberg’s Op. 11 Piano Pieces, which he taught to Stein. But it was as a student at USC and UCLA (from 1935–1939) that Stein forged a close association with Schoenberg, becoming his assistant and the editor of the 1975 edition of Style and Idea, a collected volume of Schoenberg’s writings. The same year, he was appointed founding director of the Arnold Schoenberg Institute at USC, a post he held until 1991. Stein founded Piano Spheres in 1994 with three other pianists: Vicki Ray, Mark Robson, and Susan Svrček. (Gloria Cheng joined later.) He remained the series’ artistic director until his death on June 24, 2004.

Leonard Stein and Piano Spheres pianists
Leonard Stein with Piano Spheres pianists: Gloria Cheng, Mark Robson, Susan Svrček, and Vicki Ray | Courtesy Piano Spheres, attributed to Betty Freeman.

Since those formative days after World War II, the contemporary music tree that was planted by Evenings on the Roof has flourished and sprouted numerous branches. In 1981, timpanist William Kraft, in association with Ernest Fleischmann, formed the LA Phil New Music Group, which spawned the Green Umbrella series, a humorously nonsensical name dreamt up by Fleischmann.

In turn, in 2016, Green Umbrella put together an all-Los Angeles contemporary music marathon called Noon to Midnight. That first year featured 12 world premieres, and the next year saw the premiere of Annie Gosfield’s opera War of the Worlds, directed by Yuval Sharon and conducted by Christopher Rountree. The daylong festivals highlighted performances by a number of current new-music ensembles, including Kaleidoscope Chamber Orchestra, HOCKET, and Wild Up.

On the academic front, in the 1970s, California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) introduced a multiday, decidedly cutting-edge Contemporary Music Festival. In its coverage of the 1983 iteration of the festival, The New York Times reported, “There were the stars of the festival, each of whom received an entire evening’s program — [Witold] Lutoslawski Thursday, Steve Reich Saturday and Iannis Xenakis Sunday. There were other luminaries with more modest portions of the program — [Milton] Babbitt, Morton Feldman, the computer composer Charles Dodge, the post-Reichian John Adams, the acoustical experimenter Alvin Lucier. There were panel discussions and receptions and gimmicks, the most flamboyant being an underwater swimming-pool event by a California-based French composer, Michel Redolfi. And there was an additional host of older and younger, traditional and experimental and electronic composers of nearly every sort (stylistically, that is; white men dominated the lists, as several people complained during panel discussions).” Anchoring the festivals was a cadre of CalArts faculty members who became known as the E.A.R. Unit.

In 2003, an enterprising man of the arts, Patrick Scott, in collaboration with musician and conductor Mark Alan Hilt, created Jacaranda Music in Santa Monica. The series, which recruited freely from the pool of Hollywood studio musicians, focused on the modernists of the 20th century, particularly Olivier Messiaen, and minimalist composers like Steve Reich, Philip Glass, and John Adams at a time when they were anything but household names. As described by the late music critic Alan Rich, Jacaranda offered “the right music in the right place at the right time.”

Sadly, on Feb. 25, Jacaranda Music ended its remarkable 20-year run, appropriately celebrating Schoenberg’s 150th birthday with a concert that combined works like Five Piano Pieces, Op. 23 (1920–23) and the Chamber Symphony No. 1, Op. 9 (1906) with music composed for the movies by his student, Leonard Rosenman, all within a few miles of where Schoenberg shopped for produce at the Brentwood Country Mart.

Mark Alan Hilt, co-founder of Jacaranda, conducting the Jacaranda Chamber Ensemble in its final concert | Credit: Mike Baker

Today’s L.A. contemporary music scene still has one of its original groups. Since its founding, the directorship of Monday Evening Concerts has been handed off multiple times, from Peter Yates (1939–1954) to Lawrence Morton (19541971), Dorrance Stalvey (19712003), Justin Urcis (20062015), and since 2015, Jonathan Hepfer.

Hepfer, who is a skilled musician and longtime member of Steven Schick’s percussion ensemble Red Fish Blue Fish, says he began his musical career as a devoted fan of punk rock in general and the Sex Pistols specifically. Then he discovered the music and musical philosophy of John Cage — “It changed my life.”

Hepfer, who arrived in L.A. by way of Oberlin and the University of California, San Diego, says his first encounter with Monday Evening Concerts was on Dec. 8, 2008. The program, titled “The Avant-Garde Through the Ages,” included some music from the late 14th century, along with 20th-century titan Luciano Berio, experimental composer-performer Vinko Globokar, and the acclaimed composer Keiko Harada.

A year later Hepfer appeared on the series for the first time as a musician, in a program devoted to the music of Gérard Grisey. Then, he became a concert producer there.

Speaking with Hepfer is a bit like a trip through an intellectual hall of mirrors, where composers, concepts, and inspired free associations pop up and reflect off each other like the dots connecting Nirvana and John Cage. If there is a recurrent theme to his goals for Monday Evening Concerts, it is to remain forever adventurous. He doesn’t think of concerts as playlists but rather as fluidly evolving “projects.”

Jonathan Hepfer | Credit: Kacie Tomita

He says, “The main thing, I think, is to consider how the word ‘adventurous’ might best be reinterpreted in the present era. It seems to me that in the late 19th and entire 20th centuries, we’ve built a power structure in art which reinforces elements of innovation as a virtue. Historically, that has meant upping the ante of whatever threshold is being pushed; the more extreme the statement, the higher the artistic value.

“The 20th century built on the currency of ‘adventurousness’ by examining many of the thresholds or taboos of music in the [common practice] eras. For example, Schoenberg asked, what is on the other side of tonality? Cage asked, what is on the other side of silence? [Edgard] Varèse asked, what is on the other side of tone and pitch? A key concept, in my view, is the ‘point of diminishing returns.’ Adventurousness certainly has its share of breathtaking moments, but following every pinnacle there also seems to be a downward slope. Warren Buffett: ‘Praise publicly, criticize privately.’ (I won’t reveal where I think these downward slopes begin). But my programming certainly reveals my version of praise.

Looking at the upcoming Monday Evening Concerts schedule, though, it looks as though there’s plenty of worthwhile adventurousness out there, as always.

“As of this April 23,” Hepfer observed, “MEC will be 85 years old. As a professional goal, I hope to direct the series until it turns 100. By then, it will likely be time to move on.”

Correction: As originally published, this article mistakenly identified Jonathan Hepfer’s undergraduate alma mater as Juilliard. It was Oberlin. We apologize for the error.