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MUSIC REVIEW

Jazz Connections Play Role in CalArts Festival Finale

March 24, 1998|DON HECKMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The 1998 CalArts Spring Festival took a slightly different turn Friday night, one that enhanced and widened the reach of the program. The final concert in the 10-day event was moved from the parochial setting of the CalArts campus to the expansive surroundings of the Getty Center's "Friday Nights at the Getty: Sounds of L.A.," a particularly felicitous marriage of place and music.

The concert, which was titled "Liberation/Innovation: New Music-Making From the California Institute of the Arts," diverged from the comminglings of Western and Far Eastern music that dominated most of the prior programming. But CalArts' characteristic eclecticism was not abandoned, with jazz connections of one sort or another playing a significant role in the proceedings.

Bassist-composer Charlie Haden, who founded the CalArts jazz program in 1982, was in fact the evening's most significant presence. His finely tuned CalArts Jazz sextet opened the evening with two brisk, professionally performed pieces. Haden's own playing took the spotlight in "By the Vaar," an adagio for bass and chamber ensemble written for him by English composer-bassist Gavin Bryars. Despite Haden's thoughtful, often meditative bass lines, however, the work seemed rudderless, moved by waves of aural textures with little feeling of destination or movement.

An appearance of the CalArts Liberation Music Orchestra, a student version of Haden's well-known professional ensemble, was far more compelling. Its performance of "Dream Keeper," based on a Langston Hughes text with arrangements by Carla Bley, was a perfect expression of the elements at the heart of Haden's musical center--a blending of the sophistication of jazz improvisation, the primal essence of folk tunes (mostly Latin American, in this case) and the use of music as a vehicle for the expression of humanitarian ideals.

Mel Powell's "Settings for Soprano and Chamber Group" also had its jazz connections, if far less specifically so. Powell, co-chairman of CalArts' composition department, was a highly regarded jazz pianist (performing with Benny Goodman) in his youth. And it was tempting to imagine the presence of a kind of spare, jazz-like sensibility in the miniaturist qualities of "Settings," which was superbly sung by soprano Jacqueline Bobak.

Mark Lowenstein's "hearts in need of mending," from the composer's opera "The Fisher King," mixed angular, dramatic melodies for three singers with twittering bits and pieces of sound from the CalArts Chamber Orchestra. But the work's primary appeal came from the peculiar juxtaposition of its text--which was drawn from humorous script segments from the film "The Fisher King"--against the abstract musical accompaniment.

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