New music great and small 

Oliver Knussen fantasizes; eighth blackbird diverges

Atlantans are treated this week to a pair of opportunities to hear newer music, symphonic and chamber. Both feature notable performers making their first appearances on the city's concert stages.

Oliver Knussen makes his first podium appearance with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, conducting music by Britten and Stravinsky as well as the Atlanta premieres of two of his own works: The Way to Castle Yonder (a potpourri of music from his opera, Higglety, Pigglety, Pop!) and his Concerto for Horn and Orchestra, featuring ASO principal horn Brice Andrus as soloist.

Andrus has not previously performed the piece, which, though less than 15 minutes in length (as is common for horn concerto), is quite demanding of the performer. "It's very physical, not a lot of rests. Pretty constant [playing], which poses a lot of challenges," Andrus says.

Those challenges include such pedestrian issues as management of the performer's spit, which collects in a brass instrument and needs to be emptied at times. In addition, he says, "There are some places where the horn part is free and it's against a rhythmic orchestra part with very complex rhythms, very involved."

While overcoming these difficulties, Andrus finds the work engaging and musically satisfying. "I'm impressed by its spatial breadth," he says, describing the concerto as an "epic landscape -- expansive, haunting, rich in depth. It definitely evokes and takes you to a sonic [sense of] place."

Taking listeners to a different place is definitely something Knussen knows about. The operas he created with author Maurice Sendak -- Higglety, Pigglety, Pop! and Where the Wild Things Are -- brought international attention to Knussen the composer. Despite what some may infer from the titles, they are fantasy pieces more in line with Ravel's L'Enfant et les sortiléges or Mahlerian night music than anything akin to kiddie music.

Andrus appreciates the solo opportunity and notes that drawing soloists from the "team players" in orchestra is good for morale, and a great way to recognize the many quality players the ASO has in its ranks. "It's a different experience," Andrus says. You go "from locker room to green room, then the next week you go back to your own spot."

Good things can also come in smaller packages, even when there are unexpected twists in store. Praised by the New York Times as a "superb contemporary music sextet," sizzling young ensemble eighth blackbird makes its Atlanta debut at Emory University's Schwartz Center.

The twist is that the appearance features only five, not all six, performers. Word has it that percussionist Matthew L. Duvall's wife is expecting a baby near the time of the Emory concert, so he is unavailable. Performing the Emory show as a quintet means it will be a different kind of program than the group presented last month at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. That was part of the ensemble's innovative "di/verge" tour that featured works by members of New York's Minimum Security Composers Collective: Dennis DeSantis, Ken Ueno, Roshanne Etezady and Atlanta native Adam Silverman.

Instead, the remaining five-sixths of eighth blackbird perform a program more typical of contemporary chamber concerts, featuring music by Michael Torke, Joan Tower, Charles Wuorinen, John Harbison and George Crumb.

Such is the nature of a specialized small ensemble, which must be dynamic enough to stay on its toes, ready for quick changes in the event a member becomes unavailable. Where an orchestra can more easily cover for a missing musician (assuming he's not the soloist) in a small ensemble, every piece is essential.


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