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MUSIC REVIEW : Wuorinen Conducts 'Tale' at Chapman


ORANGE — Composer Charles Wuorinen, who comes loaded with academic honors and distinctions including a Pulitzer Prize in music in 1970, came to the Southland this weekend to conduct.

Having written a version of his "A Winter's Tale" for chamber group, he led members of the Southwest Chamber Music Society in the premiere performance Friday at Chapman University. A repeat of the program was scheduled for Saturday in Pasadena.

It was sung by Phyllis Bryn-Julson, the soprano for whom Wuorinen wrote "A Winter's Tale" and who had sung a version accompanied by piano in February in Baltimore.

The work is a setting of Dylan Thomas' poem of the same title. Wuorinen sets lines whole rather than deconstructing words into syllables or phonemes, but even so sheds little light on Thomas' obscurities. Specialists in his poetry may be able to decode the symbolism.

The composer uses familiar word-painting devices (a high note for "clouds," a low note for "the grave," a falling line for "the bird descended" and so on). Perhaps the most startling effect occurs in the sudden silence after the soprano sings "Listen."

Generally, however, the composer's serial idiom makes stark, cerebral demands that inspire more respect than affection.

In addition to the authoritative soprano, the responsive ensemble consisted of David Sherr on clarinet, Jeff von der Schmidt on horn, Gloria Cheng on piano, Peter Marsh on violin, Jan Karlin on viola and Roger Lewbow on cello.

With Wuorinen providing piano accompaniment, Bryn-Julson also sang Michael Flanders and Donald Swann's comic "A Word on My Ear" as an appealing, audience-pleasing encore. Curious choice, though: Was it a little bit of sugar to help the medicine go down?

Earlier in the program, a youngish-looking Dana Marsh sang six songs by John Dowland with lutanist James Tyler providing skillful accompaniment. Marsh's countertenor was bright at the top, scruffy at the bottom, attractively dark-hued in the middle. Alas, it also could be hooty under pressure.

At this stage of his career (there were no biographies of either him or Tyler), Marsh does not strongly differentiate moods nor individualize the texts. But his voice seems reasonably agile and promising.

The program opened with violinist Marsh and Cheng playing Stravinsky's "Suite Italienne," the composer's own arrangement of music from his "Pulcinella." Marsh played with uncharacteristic slackness and pitch problems; Cheng, with precision and clarity.

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