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A lively mix of legend, modernity

October 16, 2003|Chris Pasles | Times Staff Writer

British composer Judith Weir writes beguiling works of fantasy and imagination. Three of her pieces -- "The Bagpiper's String Trio," "Distance and Enchantment" and "Musicians Wrestle Everywhere" -- highlighted a lively chamber music program by the Contemporary Music Ensemble, led by Donald Crockett, in USC's Alfred Newman Recital Hall on Tuesday.

Excerpted from an instrumental opera about James Reid, a luckless 18th century Jacobite army instrumentalist who was executed after a judge ruled that bagpipes were a weapon, Weir's Trio evoked a bygone romantic era. Its many charms include its final "Lament, over the sea," a masterly portrait of the ocean of the kind that British composers excel in. The work was played splendidly by violinist Joel Pargman, violist Aaron Oltman and cellist Alexander Suleiman.

They were joined by pianist Grace Zhao for "Distance and Enchantment," an evocative meditation on folk tales of women and girls who leave safe domesticity to wander in Gypsy and fairy realms.

Then, just when it seemed that Weir was altogether preoccupied by history and legend, her "Musicians Wrestle Everywhere" brought us into the gritty, exciting landscape of a modern city.

The program also featured works by two others: . Pierre Jalbert, composer in residence with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, was represented by the West Coast premiere of his "Transcendental Windows," and Thomas Osborne, a doctoral student at USC, by the world premiere of his "Five Fixations for Eight Players."

Commissioned by the Albany (N.Y.) Symphony, "Transcendental Windows" was inspired by Tiffany stained-glass windows at an Albany church. The work invited contemplation through layered, sensitively scored sustained chords that evolved into episodes of narrative action.

Despite whimsical section titles such as "On Pins and Needles," Osborne's "Five Fixations" is very formal, the work of a young composer who set himself the task of using minimum material for maximum effect. It is strong, but one suspects he will soon move in a freer direction.

The concert was part of Weir's five-day residency at USC. One of her choral works will be performed Friday in the Fall Festival of Choirs concert.

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