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Drum Star

Han Bennink promises to sparkle tonight in solo show in Ventura.

October 20, 2000|JOSEF WOODARD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It may sound like an overstatement, but there's no musician in the world quite like legendary Dutch drummer Han Bennink.

No other percussionist on the planet so deftly combines technical fortitude and natural improvisational abandon, nuanced musicality and anarchic glee.

To hear him perform solo at Ventura City Hall, where he will appear tonight as part of the pfMentum new music concert series, should be a rare, not-to-miss opportunity. In his corner of the music world, Bennink is a bona fide superstar.

Like an abstractionist who first mastered realism, Bennink has paid his dues and navigated the proper musical byways en route to a life in the "avant-garde." He was born in 1942 near Amsterdam, where his skills were drawn on by jazz luminaries visiting Holland, including Dexter Gordon, Wes Montgomery, Sonny Rollins and Eric Dolphy. In the '60s, he was in on the ground floor of a European movement of free improvisers with pianist Misha Mengelberg, saxophonist Willem Breuker and others.

From the late '80s until 1998, Bennink was a critical third of the Clusone 3, whose albums on Hat Art and Gramavision are well worth finding. That group charted a unique stylistic path that relied heavily on experimentation and improvisation, but also checked in with traditional music. Take, for instance, its revisionist interpretation of Irving Berlin's songbook, on the brilliant Hat Art album "Soft Lights and Sweet Music." It's radical and witty, but it's also loving.

For recent evidence of Bennink's more purely "free" instincts, listen to last year's duet with guitarist Derek Bailey, "Post Improvisation/When We're Smilin'," on the British Incus label. Even on this recording, joking touches combine with abstract expressions.

Bennink, like his Clusone bandmate, the wry virtuoso cellist Ernst Reijsegar, is among the world-class improvisers who have no trouble feeding humor into the mix. It's a shame that more stateside improvisers, too intent on being intense, can't see fit to do likewise. Humor is a natural ally of improvisation's built-in agenda of surprise, and it helps when you're a musician, like Bennink, blessed with an organic wit, along with uncommon talent.

DETAILS

Han Bennink, 8 p.m. today at Ventura City Hall, 501 Poli St. Tickets are $10.

The Russians Are Coming Again: At last Saturday's New West Symphony program, the second of the season, maestro Boris Brott followed the orchestra's customary playing of the national anthem with a brief speech and concert preview.

He also explained the orchestra's noticeable lack of contemporary music in this season's programming, saying that appreciating contemporary music requires "a process of learning."

The point could be made that a concert of Russian music such as this might have been an ideal place to toss in a bit of Stravinsky--the 20th century's greatest composer.

But that would be a misdirected quibble, as the subject at hand this weekend was Russian Romanticism, the stuff of Glinka's Overture to Russian, and Ludmilla, Rachmaninoff's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Opus 43, and that prissy but feel-good warhorse, Rimsky-Korsakov's "Scheherazade."

This was another foursquare New West Symphony concert, played with the solidity and passion we've come to expect from this fine ensemble. There was also at least one deposit of individual dramatic flair, courtesy of guest pianist Leon Bates, the soloist on the Rachmaninoff piece.

Bates is a commanding player who brings tempered bravura to the task. Each phrase is accounted for, and clarity is the goal. He dove coolly into the famous rhapsodic waltz theme in the middle of the work, making it the picture of swooning. Generous applause was rewarded with a refreshingly offbeat encore, the American 19th century composer Louis Moreau Gottschalk's "The Banjo," all dancing, bouncing finger work.

Concertmaster Elizabeth Pitcairn had a good showing of her own, offering a suitably lucid earnestness in her solo part on "Scheherazade." All ended well, on the resolving major chord of the work, and without misstep.

There's nothing inherently wrong with standard, 19th century-leaning repertoire performed with care and insight. We just wonder about the missing link in the orchestra's current season. To pick up on Brott's lead and to ask a musical question: What happened to the music of the now, or at least a more recent then? And when does the teaching begin, if not on the concert stage?

Copland Patrol: It's Aaron Copland's centennial year, and all programming of the great American composer's work is welcome, especially of rarely heard works. On Sunday, at the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza, the Taggart Ballet Theater Company will put on his 1937 ballet "The Second Hurricane," a piece written expressly for younger performers.

It had an unusual birth. The original choreography was tossed out by Copland's choice of a director, the young genius Orson Welles. The version coming to Thousand Oaks was choreographed by the company's director, Maria Taggart, and premiered at the Irvine Barclay Theater in March. They're taking it on the road, to Thousand Oaks and then to Santa Barbara's Lobero Theatre on Oct. 29.

DETAILS

Taggart Ballet Theater Company, 8 p.m. Sunday at the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza, 2100 Thousand Oaks Blvd. Tickets cost $15-$20; (714) 544-4304.

*

Josef Woodard, who writes about art and music, can be reached by e-mailing joeinfo@aol.com.

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