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Ruo, Koh, and Other Delights

Contemporary Classical Music in Santa Barbara


SEASONSLEAVINGS: May brings with it wildflowers still springing up and concert seasons winding down, making way for the summertime classical wonder of the Music Academy of the West to fill our hungry ears. This weekend’s Santa Barbara Symphony program ends a fairly easy-does-it season on a slightly daring note, with the West Coast premiere of Israeli composer Avner Dorman’s recent concerto Lost Souls, performed by the pianist it was written for, Alon Goldstein. In a way, this concert could be seen as a teaser harbinger of next season’s much more venturesome programming, chock-full of items away from the warhorse stable.

For any fan of contemporary music (or just music dating from the opening strains of, say, 1913’s The Rite of Spring on forward), last month’s Camerata Pacifica program was something of a revelation, one of the finest, most ear-challenging hours spent in a Santa Barbara classical concert all season. That concert’s first half was a triple whammy of heady stuff by Elliott Carter, Krzysztof Penderecki, and a new one by Huang Ruo. Senses are still reeling. Ending the CamPac season Friday at Hahn Hall (both evening and lunchtime shows), the prized chamber music group mixes up comfort food and spicier fare, from Brahms to Nino Rota, Roussel, and Gaubert.

JENNIFER KOH: Speaking of music from recent decades, one of the juicier and more left-of-center classical-music evenings of this season promises to take flight at Campbell Hall on Tuesday, when violinist Jennifer Koh brings her taste for adventure and burnished virtuosity to town. While she has traversed the more conventional repertoire, Koh is distinguished by her willingness to stretch beyond convention, as heard on her striking album Rhapsodic Musings: 21st Century Works for Solo Violin (Cedille), which gives notice with music that’s all by living composers—Elliott Carter, John Zorn, Augusta Read Thomas, and Esa-Pekka Salonen. Much-praised for her maverick tastes and ability to make the solo violin format sing, Koh is carving out an artistic path of her own devising.

Carter and Salonen are featured on the Campbell Hall program, along with Finnish wonder Kaija Saariaho, framed by the mighty J.S. Bach and including a splash of Eugène Ysaÿe’s old-school showpiece-ishness. Add to that the addition of a video-art element by Tal Rosner to go with Salonen’s Lachen verlernt, and Tuesday’s fare, also the final classical event in the UCSB Arts & Lectures season, should satisfy our yearning for more contemporary, cutting-edge diversions in Santa Barbara’s rich but overly cozy concert music culture.

FRINGE PRODUCT: A recent scanning of intriguing jazz releases exposes a tale of two jazz icons, Wynton Marsalis and Muhal Richard Abrams, from different generations and artistic sensibilities (not to mention different audience sizes and tastes). However, the younger Marsalis, 49, keeper of the neo-con–jazz cause, is in some ways older—and came out of the chute that way—than the now 80-year-old Abrams, with his progressive and ever-youthful artistic countenance.

In American music, we’ve had the classic twosome of Waylon and Willie, legends of the “outlaw country” scene. Can we add to the list Wynton and Willie? Should we? Marsalis has recently released his second album with Willie Nelson, Here We Go Again (Blue Note), also recorded live in the Jazz at Lincoln Center compound, this time paying tribute to an artist who skillfully crossed lines between country, jazz, R&B, and gospel in ways nobody else has managed, Ray Charles. But the connection, adorned here with a cameo by Norah Jones, feels tenuous and disconnected—better on paper and on a marquee than in actual musical reality.

For a bolder taste of Marsalis’s recent doings, check out his impressive collaborative effort with his quintet and guest, the great Frenchman Richard Galliano, who may well be the greatest living jazz accordionist and is very well suited to the Marsalis project From Billie Holiday to Edith Piaf, Live in Marciac (Rampart Street). Working fluidly across the American-Gallic cultural divide, Galliano and Marsalis find fellowship with each other beautifully here.

A very different brand of musical magic happens on the fascinating, lean-but-large double disc from Abrams, SoundDance (Pi). Here, we get a strong dose of the current energy force from the godfather of the creative music revolution that started in Chicago 50 years ago. Each disc finds him improvising with important, empathetic Chicagoans, including legendary leftist tenor sax player Fred Anderson (who passed away last year) and avant-garde super-trombonist George Lewis, who left Chicago years ago and is now teaching at Columbia (after a long stint at UC San Diego), but who never left the independent spirit of the AACM. SoundDance is a bracing and engaging piece of work, never slack or sentimental or “casual-listening friendly,” and a fine example of what it means to be musically free.

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