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Chambers' work is a contemporary delight

The New Music Festival's focus on composer Evan K. Chambers yields unique performances.

By JOHN FLEMING, Times Performing Arts Critic
© St. Petersburg Times
published October 9, 2002


TAMPA -- The University of South Florida's New Music Festival took a chance by devoting an entire program to an unknown composer. Evan K. Chambers, 39, a member of the music faculty at the University of Michigan, has written works performed by major orchestras and won prizes, but he is far from a household name, even in households that pay attention to contemporary music.

But the festival's focus on Chambers yielded scintillating results in a survey of his chamber music Monday. It got a terrific performance by the sextet Quorum, whose unusual instrumentation -- clarinet, bassoon, saxophone, violin, percussion and piano -- was fully deployed only in Cold Water, Dry Stone, the three-movement work that concluded the program in USF's bandbox of a recital hall.

Several themes emerged from the all-Chambers program, which had the composer saying a few words about his music between selections. First, Chambers is an adept mixer and matcher of world music genres, including klezmer wailing, Celtic fiddling, rhythmic chant and minimalist drumming. The cross-pollination generated some wonderfully exotic sounds in Cold Water, Dry Stone, which was inspired by a trip to Albania.

Chambers, composer in residence for Quorum, also is a gifted reworker of folk music. Come Down Heavy! transformed traditional songs such as Steel Drivin' Man and Drill Ye Tarriers into a tour de force that tested the upper sonic limits in wild and woolly playing by Timothy McAllister on alto sax, Carolyn Stuart on violin and Midori Koga on piano. Another in-your-face, folk-based piece was Firehose Reel, with searing runs by Stuart and great boogie-woogie piano by Kogan.

Chambers went for wide dynamic contrasts in a pair of works for woodwinds, Crossroads Songs featuring McAllister, supported by Koga and percussionist Alison Shaw, and Deep Flowers for clarinetist Kimberly Cole, displaying virtuosic tone and breathing technique in the Indonesian-influenced solo. As a break between bravura works, Koga played a wistful little piano solo, Lullaby.

Sunday, in the festival's opening concert, the USF Chamber Singers gave the premiere of Deploration, Chambers' elegy for his mentor, composer William Albright. Conducted by Richard Zielinski, with text by Chambers, the piece for chorus and organ was soothing and angry at the same time, a warm remembrance of Albright as well as a cry against the alcoholism that killed him at 53.

The festival winds up tonight with music by a somewhat better-known living composer, Jennifer Higdon, played by the USF Symphony Orchestra, William Wiedrich conducting. Higdon's acclaimed blue cathedral tops a program that also includes Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2, with soloist Genevieve Beauchamp, and the overture to Strauss' Die Fledermaus.

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REVIEW: The New Music Festival has the USF Symphony Orchestra playing works of Johann Strauss, Rachmaninoff and Jennifer Higdon at 7:30 tonight in Ferguson Hall of the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center, Tampa. $7, $5. (813) 229-7827.

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