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Honoring a man whose music dared you to dream

EAR Unit pays tribute to late composer Stephen Mosko.

April 13, 2006|Chris Pasles | Times Staff Writer

STEPHEN "Lucky" Mosko, the CalArts composer and conductor who died in December at 58, influenced several generations of students. His music, however, isn't heard as much as it deserves. So the California EAR Unit tribute to him Tuesday at REDCAT, Valencia-based CalArts' downtown center, was particularly welcome.

That's not to say that his music is easy. Mosko was influenced by the abstract modernist style of the '50s and '60s, which explored new ways of playing instruments, organizing sounds and incorporating ideas from other disciplines and cultures. Yet he could not muffle his fine ear for sounds that work, nor extinguish the playfulness and exploratory bent that quickly won him friends among colleagues and students.

The three pieces played at REDCAT, which dated from the early 1980s to 2005, all bore titles that set the imagination going: "J (journal)," "Thea's Tune" and "Indigenous Music II." Within them were such movements as "Vows and Cons," "Hawthorn" and the delightful "Plum Blossom Special." These were invitations to listen and speculate. Maybe even dream.

Mosko composed "J (journal)" in 2003 for the EAR Unit, the new music group he helped found at CalArts in the '70s. In his program notes, he mentioned the Druid alphabet but also said the piece was a series of portraits of the musicians.

So, in addition to appreciating the rugged textures and immediacy of the sounds, you could wonder what essence they captured of these people, who performed it again Tuesday: his wife, flutist Dorothy Stone; clarinetist Phil O'Connor; violinist Mark Menzies; cellist Erika Duke-Kirkpatrick; pianist Vicki Ray; and percussionist Amy Knoles.

In the four-part "Indigenous Music II" (1980-84), the canvas broadened to evoke mystery and ritual, suggesting a vanished culture that left indelible footprints. The EAR Unit was augmented by oboist Stuart Horn, pianist Lorna Eder and percussionists David Johnson and Nicolas Terry. Arthur Jarvinen conducted.

The program also included the premiere of Mosko's last completed work, "Thea's Tune" (2005), a challenging multi-movement solo composed for Stone, who played it on different flutes, piano and clay pot.

There's always a temptation to read something special into composers' final works, as if they knowingly were dropping hints of their mortality. The ending of Mozart's last piano concerto, for instance, seems like the departure of a beloved child skipping away from our embrace.

Here, too, even though the sounds and new music techniques were familiar from previous works, it was hard not to hear the last toneless exhalations through the flute as the departure of a spirit.

Mosko might well have hated such anthropomorphism. But he might have forgiven it too. A brief post-intermission film of a Repercussion Unit concert at CalArts in October showed him and four colleagues jamming up a storm. This was not an uptight intellectual, but a guy who loved life, music and the people who make it.

There will be another tribute to him May 6 as part of the downtown Machine Project's "Everybody Loves Difficult Music" series.

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