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Sight meets sound, and it's an awkward introduction

At LACMA, the ensemble eighth blackbird is relegated to slideshow accompanist.

February 02, 2007|Josef Woodard | Special to The Times

In the ranks of important contemporary music groups, eighth blackbird's reputation has sharply risen in recent years. The young ensemble is widely admired for keeping new music alive, kicking and also approachable -- minus compromise. Though the group has appeared in the Southland, including at the Ojai Festival -- where it will be music director in 2009 -- Wednesday's appearance at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art's Bing Theater was its first in that venue.

It seems a logical connection given the hall's past glory as the home of "Monday Evening Concerts." Alas, that was then and this is now, after LACMA gutted its music program and then reassembled a transitional, pared-down version of its former self. Wednesday's event, though strong on purely musical terms, came equipped with a tenuous music-meets-art package, synced to LACMA's blockbuster Rene Magritte exhibition.

Visuals projected here suggested the casual kitschification of Magritte, whose neatnik Surrealism proved an irrelevant distraction from the music. It seemed best to avoid the screen, much as we might ignore Internet ads and focus on content. The six members of eighth blackbird deserve much better than a role as slideshow accompanist.

Wednesday's program was a fine primer in what makes them special, showcasing varied but always engaging works by upcoming composers, and smartly framed by two more established composers, Stephen Hartke and Joseph Schwantner.

Hartke, based at USC, is an increasingly important composer internationally, with a voice both adventurous and accessible, as confirmed by his 1997 piece "The Horse With the Lavender Eye" for violin, clarinet and piano (here, Matt Albert, Michael J. Maccaferri and Lisa Kaplan).

This piece, like much of Hartke's music, is epigrammatic and picturesque, a crisp but surprising blend of folkish abstraction and Stravinsky-esque lining.

The group closed with its most tonal and lyrical piece, offering the West Coast premiere of Schwantner's "Rhiannon Blackbirds," a bright and bristling thing brought vividly to life by the complete ensemble. With yearning melodic lines floating over flowing, rippling arpeggios on piano and vibraphone, the music lives on the outskirts of postminimalism, connected to the m-word but also proudly self-determining.

Elsewhere on the program, the sextet boldly tackled diverse and challenging music from younger composers. Gordon Fitzell's "violence" is a loose textural tapestry, a moody chiaroscuro of sound (part of the group's dazzling new CD, "strange imaginary animals"). The "violence" in question relates to artistic tension and conflict, an idea craftily folded into ensemble sound and interaction.

Fast, knotty ensemble writing, interspersed with droning "freeze frame" moments, makes Carlos Sanchez-Gutierrez's "Luciernagas" an exciting and sternly evocative work, and Gordon Beeferman's "Reliquary" riffs off the theme of objects -- treasured and mundane -- in a safe, dark place, translated in musical terms to a collection of colorful modules passed around the group.

A wandering eye gazed up at a Roy Lichtenstein painting on-screen, where the artist's name was misspelled. Something was wrong with this sight-meets-sound picture. But many things were very right with the musical picture, the picture that counted.

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