Back in the 1980s and early ’90s, the Los Angeles Philharmonic Institute’s training program for young musicians occupied UCLA’s music facilities during the summer. That program shut down long ago, but the Henry Mancini Institute — now in its seventh season — has, in effect, picked up the ball and extended the mission in more useful ways. We heard the first fruits of the 2003 session Saturday night — and as before, this orchestra seems able to perform just about anything well.
On this eclectic program alone, the young musicians — who have been in session only a week — were asked to play a historical artifact from the Third Stream movement, reproduce the Duke Ellington sound, perform a well-known piece of contemporary classical music, read through a new work by a student composer and back a highly touted vocalist.
That’s probably a wider variety of tasks than they may ever face in a pro orchestra or recording studio — which is precisely the point of the exercise: Be prepared for everything.
In the Ellington piece, “Night Creature” — a little-known, slyly inspired three-movement suite written for, but never performed by, the NBC Symphony — the HMI Orchestra played under the baton of the Third Stream’s fountainhead, Gunther Schuller, who arranged the piece for Duke.
In a rare West Coast appearance, the 77-year-old Schuller made this group swing with an infectious pulse, producing raucous muted brass that approximated an Ellington texture, while the concertmaster’s dusky-toned solo evoked Ray Nance.
Schuller topped off his guest spot with an exuberant rendition of his fascinating, accelerating Concertino for Jazz Quartet and Orchestra (written for the Modern Jazz Quartet).
Returning from last summer, Karla Lemon led a performance of John Adams’ “Short Ride in a Fast Machine” that was halting in rhythm yet full of beans and high spirits.
She also unveiled Adam Waite’s The Tool Collector,” whose initial lightweight minimalist vamp recalled Adams’ style.
In a film-related idiom, conductor-artistic director Patrick Williams served up his “Overture to a Time” and Mancini’s “Life Force.”
Claudia Acuna’s brief closing set took in two Billy Childs-arranged selections from her Verve album “Rhythm of Life,” “Ay Mariposa” and “A Child Is Born,” plus Alec Wilder’s “Lourdes’ Song” — all sung in a forthright manner, a bit stridently amplified.
Which leads to the question, Why was the harsh amplification of the orchestra necessary in this acoustically sharp hall?