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Anthony Newman remains provocative

January 08, 2008|Richard S. Ginell | Special to The Times

Anthony Newman was considered somewhat of a maverick when he emerged in the late '60s and '70s as Columbia Masterworks' Pied Piper for baroque music to the counterculture.

The youthful Newman cut a hip but still intellectual figure as an organist, harpsichordist, conductor and composer, with even Rolling Stone writing about him. A bit ahead of his time, he experimented with period instruments, lots of ornaments and fast tempos.

Many decades have passed. Columbia Masterworks no longer exists per se, its remnants hidden within the catalog of Sony BMG; period performance is now the dominant religion in the baroque field. Newman, meanwhile, continues on his own quirky path, though with a lower profile.

According to his website, he'll even play at your wedding -- "for $2,500, plus airfare and a room in a 4-star hotel."

As a composer, Newman still has the ability to provoke. He launched his appearance on the Organ Series in Walt Disney Concert Hall on Sunday night with a marvelously iconoclastic Fantasia and Fugue on the "Te Deum" that was drenched with bluesy riffs and circusy themes tumbling about. After knocking out four works by J.S. Bach, Newman replied with his own Toccata, Adagio and Fugue on B-A-C-H, a high-tension roller-coaster ride all around the manuals based upon notes drawn from Bach's name (following Bach's example in "The Art of the Fugue").

Yet Newman's interpretations of Bach himself were provocations of a less-satisfying kind. Bach was a master builder, piecing together his massive structures brick by brick, strand by strand, but I felt hardly any sense of this architecture in Newman's performances of the "Wedge" and "St. Anne" preludes and fugues and the mighty Passacaglia and Fugue in C Minor.

They were played like free-form fantasias, with a lot of drive but little rhythm, grandeur or direction -- with barely any contrasts in timbre and important lines sometimes mashed and jumbled together. Only in the brief chorale "Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland," BWV 659, and the jumping encore, the "Jig" Fugue, BWV 577, did Newman allow the individual strands to emerge and breathe.

Newman came up with a clever idea in patching together three short pieces by Couperin ("Le rossignol en amour"), Rameau ("La Poule," famously used by Respighi in "The Birds"), and Daquin ("Le coucou") into a segment titled "Three French Hens." He also included three organ pieces by Mozart, including a joyous burst of an Allegro in C major, before landing in the 20th century with a high-volume, breathlessly paced rendition of Louis Vierne's ode to Big Ben, "Carillon de Westminster."

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