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Music Review

Hartke Finds Medieval Links in Modern Compositions

October 10, 2002|JOSEF WOODARD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Count Stephen Hartke as one Los Angeles composer whose music is too rarely heard in his hometown. It was a treat, then, to get a three-pack of Hartke's chamber music, in honor of his 50th birthday, at USC's Newman Recital Hall on Tuesday. Hartke has been teaching at USC since 1987, and members of the USC Thornton School's Contemporary Music Ensemble gave an avid, involving performance.

As heard here, he can pack a lot into a small space, and gracefully. Hartke draws on a wide, sometimes pleasantly bewildering range of ideas and sources, but the result is a coherently voiced rather than shallow postmodern ransacking. Clearly contemporary, with a questioning spirit and harmonic puzzles, his music can also convey the cool, objective air of medieval music.

"The Horse With the Lavender Eyes," for clarinet, violin and piano, artfully incorporates conceptual tricks such as a movement played with only left hands. In the movement "Cancel My Rumba Lesson," a title filched from R. Crumb, an insistent, fractured rhythm yields to a sad, tender finale. "The King of the Sun," commissioned by the Los Angeles Piano Quartet, wonderfully balances its five elliptical and atmospheric movements with a slippery emotional core.

After intermission, "Wulfstan at the Millennium" contained the evening's most intimate and directly emotional content. Here, Hartke takes his medieval intrigue further, with music that directly, and disarmingly, links medieval and contemporary writing. The millennium of the title refers to 1000, not 2000, and Hartke follows a quasi-liturgical form, neither exactly faithful nor heretical, but teeming with a strange and delicate beauty.

Things tend to happen, and attitudes tend to shift with little notice, in Hartke's work. Serious music, he suggests, doesn't preclude playfulness.

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