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MUSIC: Ventura County | SOUNDS

Side by Side : Haydn and Mahler renditions provide a lesson in history of symphonic form.

July 16, 1998|JOSEF WOODARD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Any classical concert worth its salt has a cultural-historical lesson to impart, but at concerts in the Music Academy of the West's summer season, we might tend to sniff out educational connections more than usual. At last Saturday's orchestral concert, for instance, the program turned out to be a tale of two symphonies, an early model by Haydn and a mature one by Mahler. The implicit subject was the history of the symphonic form itself.

Another full house at the Lobero Theatre took in the polished sounds made by tender young hands, with conductor Graeme Jenkins, from the Dallas Symphony and the Cologne Opera, at the helm.

A century separates Haydn's "Oxford" symphony, written in 1788, and Mahler's First Symphony, but what a century it was. Haydn was an early master of symphonic writing, and this work was ahead of its time, anticipating the dramatic sweep to come and touches of the emotive romantic palette of Beethoven, while also bridging baroque and classical elements.

The symphony, played handily if not always pristinely by the orchestra, is a fine example of Haydn's elegance of expression and calm visionary thinking. Characteristic deposits of wit sneak into the third movement, with its disarming shifts of dynamics and oddly placed pauses that mischievously yank the rug from under the waltz time.

A hundred years down the road, Beethoven, Schubert and Brahms had laid their formidable groundwork in establishing the symphony as a supreme challenge of romantic dramaturgy. Mahler, the late-period Romantic who is often credited for ushering in the 20th century in music, had his own ideas about how to bring new life into the form, which is evident even from the first of his nine symphonies.

Perhaps it's fitting to hear the piece performed by young musicians: This is an opus about youth and its aftereffects, written when the composer was still a twentysomething. The first movement of the hourlong symphony is all vernal splendor, with youthful zeal triumphing over the fleeting suggestion of distress from the low strings.

The second movement, "Blumine"--lost from 1894-1968--sustains a mood of calm acceptance. The third is about bounding energy, the fourth a satirical funeral march; and the final movement juggles angst, aching lyricism and faint echoes of the first movement's bounty of hope, now filtered through the chastening quality of experience.

It's hard to listen to Mahler without perceiving a narrative structure, however abstract. It's no surprise that Mahler's music has regained momentum in the concert world lately.

He was a symphonic storyteller, heir to the tradition that Haydn had flung into motion. The power of the story prevails, especially in a cultural atmosphere longing for order.

Next up on the Music Academy's schedule of orchestral concerts is this year's appearance of noted conductor Jeffrey Tate on July 25, when the orchestra will take on a nicely varied menu of Wagner, Lutoslawski and Mendelssohn. In the meantime, faculty members perform chamber music every Tuesday night at the Lobero: This week, hear a program of Mozart, Strauss and Brahms.

* "Tuesdays at 8," Music Academy of the West Chamber Music Series, at the Lobero Theatre, 33 E. Canon Perdido St., Santa Barbara; Tickets are $23; 963-0761.

*

Bass Desires Fulfilled: Bassist Steuart Liebig, an accomplished player who specializes in the electric six-string bass, has been circulating on the inspired, avant-jazz fringes of the Los Angeles music scene for years. He often shows up as part of the rotating crop of ensembles in the "New Music Monday" series, now held at Luna Park in West Hollywood. Among other projects, he has led his own group, Quarteto Stig, and put out three CDs on the Nine Winds label with that group.

When he shows up in the atmospheric quarters of the Art City 2 gallery this Saturday night, it will be with two other mainstays of L.A.'s adventurous music world--the influential multi-reed player Vinnie Golia and drummer Billy Mintz, one of the most interesting and free-spirited drummers on the West Coast.

As heard on a sampler of tracks from an upcoming CD, "No Trains," the trio leans toward improvisation, with compositional guideposts sometimes provided by Liebig.

Between Liebig's full palette of single lines, rumbling intervals and manually achieved sonic effects, Golia's powerhouse sound and Mintz's minimalist pulses, the spacious but intense music asserts its own kind of dark, muted charm. It's related to jazz, but heads off in a direction not easily put into words or categories.

* Liebig/Golia/Mintz Trio, Saturday, 8:30 p.m. at Art City II, 31 Peking St. in Ventura. Tickets are $5; 648-1690.

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