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Music Review

Absolute Ensemble Struts Forth Boldly

February 26, 2001|RICHARD S. GINELL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When last we spotted Kristjan Jarvi, heir to the family conducting business, he was leading standard repertoire in the Hollywood Bowl as a Los Angeles Philharmonic assistant conductor. We knew there was another, shall we say, looser side to Jarvi, but not until Saturday night, with the L.A. debut of his Absolute Ensemble in the Skirball Center's Magnin Auditorium, did we know just how far off the path he likes to stray.

The 16-member group paraded onto the stage in an eclectic variety of dress, opening with a brooding jazz-rock passage a la Miles Davis' "Bitches Brew" period, with Jarvi hanging back in the wings like a rock star in waiting. They're not above flamboyance; bassoonist Martin Kuuskmann donned a white jumpsuit and struck appropriate poses in Michael Daugherty's savagely funny deconstruction of an American myth, "Dead Elvis."

*

Their musical bent shifts from minute to minute: a neo-Renaissance dirge alternates with a burlesque of Gershwin-esque blues in James MacMillan's "T.S. Eliot"; the frantically dissonant big band jazz of pianist Matt Herskowitz's "Serial Blues" gives way to a dark, murky chart of Charles Mingus' "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat." This was the CD generation speaking, raised on a varied diet of recordings and unwilling to exclude anything.

Yet behind the cool lighting effects, pounding grooves, and rock-show pacing was a very well-rehearsed set of musicians, all of whom solo impressively and stop and start on a dime. Moreover, they were capable of a crystalline performance of Debussy's "Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun" (in the Schoenberg Society chamber arrangement), a graceful, perfectly timed breather that did not seem out of context with its raucous neighbors. Jarvi may be onto something there.

The encores were Jimi Hendrix's "Manic Depression" and a marching-band-like take on James Brown's "Super Bad." Well, what did you expect? Brahms?

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