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Baroque's Breath of Fresh Air : Music: Composer Robert Linn has created an opus for the Corona del Mar festival, which is opening Sunday.


HOLLYWOOD HILLS — A baroque music festival isn't the first place you'd go to check the pulse of new music. Where baroque traditions are concerned, the 18th Century is generally as advanced as things get.

But capping Sunday night's opening concert of the 13th annual Baroque Music Festival in Corona del Mar is that rarity: the world premiere of a freshly inked, baroque-oriented composition.

There, culminating an evening of Bach, Couperin, and Handel at St. Michael and All Angels Episcopal Church, will be a neo-baroque concerto for oboe, harpsichord and orchestra by Los Angeles-based composer Robert Linn.

While this festival has in years past frequently included pieces fresh to most ears--whether new pieces by area composers, or vintage works recently unearthed--Linn's opus represents the first piece actually commissioned under the festival's auspices.

The commission came courtesy of Donald Leake and his wife, Rosemary. Donald Leake, a surgeon at UCLA, also is an oboist who has performed with the festival for several years. The harpsichord soloist will be Malcolm Hamilton, another baroque-festival veteran.

Burton Karson, the festival's artistic director, explained that Linn "was wonderful to work with because he was excited about the possibilities, first, and he respected Donald Leake as an oboist. What he gave us was absolutely wonderful, charming, easy to listen to, very tonal but unmistakably contemporary. No one would mistake it for an 18th-Century work."

And no one would mistake Linn for an 18th-Century apologist. But he does have versatility on his side.

In addition to his latest concerto, he's written two piano concertos, a quintet for brass instruments and another for woodwinds, a Concertino for Violin and Wind Octet and a Fantasia for Two Violas.

"It seems to me that it's more fun to take each new commission and hope that it's going to be something different--a chance to write for different instruments or a chance to use new forms or techniques," the affable composer said last week in an interview from his almost rustic neighborhood outside of Universal City.

In preparing his latest piece, Linn said, "the first thing that came to mind was, 'What is a live composer doing on a baroque concert? How can I tie all of this together?'

"It ended up writing itself very easily. I had to set my mind to baroque type of thinking. When I wasn't writing, I was listening to baroque music and harpsichord music."

With this commission, Linn said, he "had certain guidelines that I had to follow--which I like very much. I like to be told to stay within certain perimeters and then do what you can within that."

For instance, Linn said Leake "is such a lyrical performer on his instrument, I tried to bring that out. At the same time, Malcolm Hamilton is great with scales and trills and chords. The combination, I think, works very well."

Another way Linn latched onto a specific reference point was his use of a theme from Handel's Harp Concerto, which also is on Sunday's program, in the final movement of his own.

"In this particular movement, rather than just writing variations, the material is reconstituted and it spills out in different ways," he said. Linn also cited his use of "sweet-and-sour harmonies as opposed to what someone might expect, and syncopated rhythms."

"I've got some passages that could be called minimalism, and there is some which you could refer to as pointillism," said Linn, whose son, Roger, invented the seminal digital drum machine, the Linn drum. "Baroque is very crisp sounding anyway, so it leads to some of these techniques almost without your being aware of it. I don't think anyone will be disturbed by a sudden change in style."

Linn, 67, is anything but a die-hard neo-baroque crusader.

His composition teachers include Darius Milhaud ("There's a little Milhaud in all my pieces," Linn said), Roger Sessions, and Ingolf Dahl. A teacher at USC from 1957 until his retirement in 1990, Linn was the chairman of the university's music theory and composition department for the last 17 years of his time there.

His 1990 Piano Concerto No. 2 was a semifinalist in the Kennedy Center Friedheim Awards and, for a second performance a year later, was a finalist in the National Orchestral Assn. New Music Project.

His more recent compositions include the Fantasia for Two Violas, written for Donald McInnes and Pamela Goldsmith, and a Concerto for Soprano Saxophone and Wind Ensemble.

"This baroque piece is quite different from the jazzy saxophone concerto, and that piece is different from the more Romantic piano concerto. So even in this short space in time, we have at least three different styles there.

"And yet I think it all sounds like me. I write in different ways, and yet there's something about the way you think and put notes together that is the same. . . .

"In the past, I've tried to write all kinds of music. At a certain period, we were expected to write serial music, and if you didn't, you felt out of it. I think now we're returning to traditional styles and a lot of romanticism. It's refreshing to write in a way where you don't feel that you're pushing to be original for originality's sake."

*The 13th annual Baroque Music Festival of Corona del Mar opens Sunday at 4 p.m. at St. Michael and All Angels Episcopal Church, 3233 Pacific View Drive, Newport Beach. The program includes the premiere of Robert Linn's Concerto for Oboe, Harpsichord and String Orchestra, along with works by Bach, Couperin, Telemann and Corrette. $20. The festival continues through June 11. and will continue through June 13 in Newport Beach. (714) 760-7887.

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