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MUSIC : Doing His Own Work : Karel Husa will conduct the CSUN Wind Ensemble as it performs pieces by . . . Karel Husa.

March 12, 1993|STEVE APPLEFORD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Steve Appleford writes regularly about music for Valley Life.

Winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1969 for his "String Quartet No. 3" was an important honor for composer Karel Husa, he says now. It brought attention to the Czech-born artist and his work, positioning him to later become one of the most-performed contemporary composers in the world.

"You have the confidence that what you are doing is somehow rewarded," Husa says of the prize's aftermath. "That's a terrific feeling, of course. It gives you an incredible lift, and keeps you in a mood so that you can compose more."

A reward of another sort would come Husa's way in subsequent years from David Whitwell, director of the Cal State Northridge Wind Ensemble and a longtime admirer of Husa's music. It was Whitwell and that student ensemble that in 1972 premiered on the West Coast Husa's environmental-themed "Apotheosis of the Earth," a piece Whitwell has since memorized.

"It looks a little curious that the composer needs the music to conduct it, and the conductor does it from memory," Husa says with a laugh. He will conduct that work and others tonight in a performance of the 40-piece CSUN Wind Ensemble.

The concert, part of the school's guest artist series, will also spotlight Husa's "Concerto for Trumpet" and "Concertino for Piano and Wind Ensemble." Rounding out the evening will be Dvorak's "Slavonic Dances" and a contemporary work by Bernard Heiden titled "Voyages," as conducted by Whitwell.

Though renowned as a serious contemporary composer, Husa's challenging work has proved accessible to lay audiences through its use of emotional tension in the midst of the clashing dissonance, Whitwell says. The composer's "Music for Prague," he adds, is "probably the most-performed piece of contemporary music of the 20th Century."

"I know many people who have performed his music and constantly get standing ovations from lay audiences," Whitwell says. "It's powerful stuff."

The writing of "Apotheosis" came shortly after Husa was awarded the Pulitzer and as he was confronted by a number of images. Among these was the 1969 Apollo 11 moon landing, which he witnessed on Prague television while visiting his family. Then there was "a revolting picture" in a magazine of baby seals being clubbed to death for their pelts, photographs of forest fires and water pollution, and the recording a student made for him of whales singing.

The 20-minute piece of music that subsequently emerged, he says, "was only to somehow portray musically how a composer feels about what's happening today in the world."

For him, and for audiences, he says, the work remains relevant. Husa recently performed "Apotheosis" with a choral group in Newark, N. J., where "I was surprised to see people who were bankers, businessmen, students, housewives, and how much they reacted to it."

Husa, 71, will be devoting even more of his time to writing music since his retirement as a professor at Cornell University in June. He's just finished a commission for a concerto for violin and orchestra in celebration of the New York Philharmonic's 150th anniversary. And he still has five more commissions ahead of him.

But he will travel a few months each year to conduct his music with professional and university ensembles.

"I like to work with young people," says Husa, who taught for 38 years. "Musicians in school may not have the techniques of first-class symphony orchestras. But what I like is that in school it is a laboratory, and they are interested in new ideas, in new music."

To that end, Husa will appear from 10 a.m. to noon Saturday in Room 105 of the CSUN Music Building in what Whitwell calls "a casual question and answer session" for students, conductors and others.

All this activity away from his composing, back home in Ithaca, N. Y., Husa says, is an extension of his early reading of the memoirs of Berlioz, who said composers should learn not only to write, but to perform and conduct their own music.

"There are times when I cannot sit still for three or four or five months," Husa explains. "I get restless, and I need to not only write music but also perform it. That side is to verify that I can still be in contact with musicians and in contact with people, which is very important to me."


* What: Conductor Karel Husa leads the CSUN Wind Ensemble in his "Apotheosis of the Earth," Concerto for Trumpet and "Concertino for Piano and Wind Ensemble." With trumpet soloist Mike Ewald and piano soloist Akiko Sakai, at University Student Union, CSUN, 18111 Nordhoff St., Northridge.

* Hours: 8 tonight.

* Price: $12 general admission; $8 students.

* Call: (818) 885-3093.

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