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MUSIC REVIEWS

Black Ensemble Achieves Goal

February 14, 1996|JOSEF WOODARD

As the name suggests, the Black Music Repertory Ensemble is hardly a garden-variety chamber ensemble, but rather an organization with a mission--one very much worth undertaking. The accomplished performing limb of the Center for Black Music Research at Columbia College Chicago, this special-interest group focuses on the rarely heard music of African American composers.

Honoring Black History Month, the ensemble showed up Sunday afternoon at the Luckman Theatre at Cal State Los Angeles and served up an engaging, wide-ranging lesson in black musical history.

The selective survey ranged from Will Marion Cook's Overture to his 1901 musical "In Dahomey," to Leslie Adams' '70s-vintage settings of texts by Langston Hughes and others--deftly sung by mezzo-soprano Hilda Harris--to contemporary works such as Hale Smith's enigmatic and agreeably dissonant 1991 piece "Dialogues and Commentaries."

Conductor Kirk Edward Smith led an ensemble that, though only a dozen members strong, proved flexible and representative of the major orchestral sonorities, and included such extra-European percussion resources as drum kit and conga.

The program changed somewhat due to bass Raymond Bazemore's absence from the tour for medical reasons. The last-minute replacement works included turn-of-the-century composer Montegue Ring's "Three African Dances," a pleasantly exotic stew of themes.

Hints of jazz appeared sparingly and in unexpected settings. Violinist Sanford Allen, who was the first regular black member of the New York Philharmonic, breezed through the solo violin work "Blues Form" by Samuel Coleridge Perkinson.

Wendell Logan's "Brasstacs," played on Lyman Brodie's muted trumpet against a taped electronic backdrop, paid homage to jazz great Miles Davis, with melancholic lines recalling the famed trumpeter's "Sketches of Spain" era. The generally dull tape had the unintentional effect of making the horn sound all the more sumptuous.

Faring better, all around, was the closing piece, Logan's "Runagate, Runagate" (translating to "runaway slave"). Written for tenor William Brown, who gave an impassioned interpretation in song and songspiel, the work is definitively programmatic, with terse ostinatoes and anguished chords underscoring Brown's empathetic vocal part.

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