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MUSIC | REVIEW

An engaging, cerebral musical ride

The California EAR Unit performed complex pieces that had the crowd at LACMA on its feet.

January 10, 2003|Josef Woodard | Special to The Times

At a time when new music is splintered in multiple directions, sometimes toward meditative schemes or pop-culture-tinged rhythmic drive, a dose of good, old-fashioned complexity and virtuosity can be refreshing. Who's afraid of a tour de force?

Complexity was in the spotlight Wednesday at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, when California EAR Unit played Charles Wuorinen's deliriously intricate mid-'90s piece "The Great Procession." The crowd offered an extended ovation, unusual by the cool standards of new music concert etiquette. Maybe it's time to thicken the plot again in contemporary music.

Based on Dante and the procession to the Mount of Purgatory, Wuorinen's work adds up to an engaging and, yes, emotional charge, as a kind of cerebral wild ride for player and listener alike. The score is broken up into 11 short, action-packed movements with four "Refrain" sections lending structural cohesion. Full of moving parts and swerving tonalities -- in and out of dissonance -- its tight turns, dynamic nuances and mosaic-like design demand virtuosic ensemble playing, which the six-piece EAR Unit, guest conducted by Stephen "Lucky" Mosko, gave.

Wuorinen's clenching intensity contrasted with the program's more reflective first half. Roger Zahab's "Not Later" shifts from the restless gumption and propulsive momentum to late-breaking languid ruminations, all the more dramatic in the wake of earlier flurries.

The putty of time and texture are played with in Sean Heim's "Stillness of a Kiss." Brooding post-Sept. 11 meditations inform Alaska-based composer John Luther Adams' atmospheric "Dark Wind," recently released on L.A.'s Cold Blue label. Marty Walker's bass clarinet is the ostensible lead voice but, in fact, is embedded in a sumptuous ensemble rumble, with thrumming chords from piano and three mallet percussionists.

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