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Bach, a man in touch with today

A program at Zipper Hall connects the composer's works with contemporary music.

March 21, 2007|Josef Woodard | Special to The Times

Too often, contemporary music is presented as a specialty item without easy or logical links to musical history. But bridging disparate eras can reveal illuminating points of cross-reference, as it did in this week's Monday Evening Concert program, "Bach and the Music of Today," at downtown's Zipper Hall. Kent Nagano was the guest curator.

Not surprisingly, Bach's music, a key fount of inspiration in Western art music, worked well as a mediating force. Bach piano pieces, sturdily played by Japanese musician and composer Ichiro Nodaira, evenly punctuated contemporary selections.

The Bach portion of the evening moved from the ultra familiar arpeggios of the first C-major Prelude of "The Well-Tempered Clavier," Book I, through the prismatic puzzle of the "Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue," which sounded almost proto-modern in this context.

Ferruccio Busoni's arrangement of the violin showpiece Chaconne was the night's least impressive Bach, performed muddily and heavily pedaled. But the fault lay mainly with Busoni's ham-fisted transcription.

Another theme was equal time for viola soloists, which aimed a spotlight at an instrument usually consigned to the shadows. George Benjamin's alluring "Viola, Viola" found violists Kurt Rohde and Ellen Ruth Rose interacting in various patterns. They capitalized on the droning midrangy richness of the instrument and exited with the murmuring percolations of a pizzicato section.

Rohde's own fascinating three-movement piece "Double Trouble" wrapped the same musicians in a small ensemble. The work, premiered at the 2004 Ojai Festival -- with Nagano as music director -- blends intensity with humor. There are lovely, elegiac moments in the "Double" section, which segues into the frenzied yet fun-loving complexity of a movement dubbed "Spazoid."

From a more ensemble-oriented direction, Unsuk Chin's "Fantaisie Mecanique" is an intricate, engaging yet emotionally cool work for a quintet also bolstered by doubling -- two busy percussionists and two brass players with a piano in between.

Nodaira's 1982 septet work, "Texture du Delire I," in its U.S. premiere Monday, is a small Boulez-like wonder. The score is highly abstract but also highly precise.

Such precision and intellectual rigor, under these circumstances, fed naturally back to Bach. On this night, old embraced new, and vice versa.

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