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Complexity's Message Is Understood

Music review: Nieuw Ensemble offers an accessible peek at intricate works. But a greater opportunity is lost.

July 04, 1998|MARK SWED | TIMES MUSIC CRITIC

Complexity in science is very hip. Instead of trying to simplify our vision of the world, advanced scientists now cogitate in elite think tanks to consider ever more incredibly intricate interconnections of mysterious reality.

But, then, just look around you. Has anything gotten simpler? Even a phone call can be harrowing, what with all the codes and voicemail labyrinths. Some of us embrace the expanding options; the rest of us put up with them.

But not in music, where complexity is a dirty word and where otherwise rational-seeming musicians and audiences can become like a crazed artistic militia railing against technology and all systems of control. Still, there are holdouts, and none with a reputation more daunting than that of the British composer Brian Ferneyhough, whose music was featured Thursday night in a program by the Dutch group Nieuw Ensemble at Cal State Long Beach.

Although Ferneyhough has taught at UC San Diego for the last 11 years, his impact remains overseas. In Europe, he is a lightning rod, his name a symbol to conservatives and popsters alike of all that is arrogantly inaccessible in music. A cadre of young British composers, though, has taken up the Ferneyhough flag. Rebelling against both tidy minimalism and messy experimentalism, they proudly call their movement the New Complexity.

For American audiences, most of this is just talk. Complex music is actually little played. The exceptions are Pierre Boulez, Elliott Carter and Milton Babbitt, and these are senior composers whose music has become more approachable over the years. So the fact that Ferneyhough happens to be guest composer this month of the Summer Arts program at Cal State Long Beach, that an ensemble is on hand good enough and eager enough to play his music and that impressionable young composers have gathered at his knee, seems a great opportunity to peek into this feisty, unpopular movement.

Unfortunately it wasn't a very good opportunity at all on Thursday in the acoustically vivid Gerald R. Daniel Recital Hall.

The Nieuw Ensemble ("nieuw" is "new" in Dutch) is an important and impressive 12-member ensemble with an unusual inclusion of plucked instruments (mandolin, guitar and harp) that attracts a wide range of composers (including many from Asia, Eastern Europe and Africa) to write for it.

But it's in residence at Cal State Long Beach mostly to work with the students of the summer institute. Thus the three public programs, of which this was the first, contain a mix of student works with an example or two from the ensemble's repertory. The plucked instruments and their players remained this week in Holland; the student compositions on this program didn't require them.

Two short Ferneyhough pieces were on the program, and neither was a problem for the uninitiated listener. One, "Coloratura," for oboe and piano, was almost exactly what you would expect: florid writing for the oboe given an exciting performance. The other work, "Mnemosyne" for solo bass flute and additional bass flutes prerecorded on tape, was more interesting. It got deep into the lush, velvety sonorities of an extraordinary instrument we almost never hear. It moved slowly but was full of interesting texture and sound. The performance by Harrie Starreveld was brilliant.

The program also included "Derive I," a short and colorfully sonorous chamber piece by Boulez, and works by four students--Philip Curtis, Reynold Tharp, Lawrence Wayte and Garth Hangartner. The student pieces, which were well made, were more complicated than complex, none taking a particularly fervent stylistic stand. In a brief discussion on stage afterward, the timid student composers said little other than that there are a lot of choices out there.

Meanwhile, Cal State and the summer arts program seem to have missed a real opportunity by not presenting at least one performance with this phenomenal Dutch group that shows what it and its music really are about. That might actually be the best education of all for the student composers, and it might also show them what it is like to attract a public.

* The Nieuw Ensemble will perform programs mixing student works with its repertory Thursday at 8 p.m., $5 to $8; and next Saturday, 2 p.m., free. Gerald R. Daniel Recital Hall, Cal State Long Beach, (562) 985-7000.

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