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Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Present Music Heads East for Season Finale

Kala Ramnath adds raga mastery to bill featuring Glass, Nyman and Riley

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2008-2009 has been an interesting season for Milwaukee's premier exponents of recent classical music, Present Music. Despite economic woes, attendance has been affected slightly, if at all. And Present Music expanded its scope of venues to include Discovery World, the Wherehouse and Turner Hall Ballroom.

The season finale is classic Present Music, with an estimable guest star on the same bill with the Milwaukee ensemble's performance of little-heard pieces by contemporary composers. "Spice Wave," as the concert is called, is organized around the idea of coupling a performance of Indian classical music with compositions by well-known minimalists who wrote under the spell of raga.

"We have a history of working with the Indian Music Society," explains Kevin Stalheim, Present Music's artistic director. "We brought Ravi Shankar here many years ago. For 'Spice Wave,' the Society gave me some recommendations."

Stalheim chose a young violinist, Kala Ramnath, who like many raga masters comes from a family whose heritage is music. She has gained notice in world music circles for her CDs and contributions to film soundtracks. At "Spice Wave," a tabla player will accompany her.

For the rest of the program, Present Music will explore the repertoire of Philip Glass, Terry Riley and Michael Nyman, a trio of composers associated with minimalism, a tendency that emerged in the 1960s and challenged the spiritual and emotional sterility of academic modernism.

"Eastern thought as much as Indian music inspired all of these guys at some point," Stalheim says. "A lot of minimalism came from thinking of music as less linear, less driven by Western formal schemes. Improvisation is important-to be in the moment. It's like ragas, which usually start slow and softly like a tree blossoming. The early minimalists were about being in the moment and not moving anywhere-like looking at a sunset and watching the colors subtly change."

But in choosing material for "Spice Wave," Stalheim leaped beyond the early work of these composers and concentrated instead on their later, post-minimalist periods. "Philip Glass has taken a huge trip away from the subtle repetition of his early days," Stalheim says. "He now writes lusher harmonies and melodies-they have a certain Philip Glass repetitiveness, but are more expansive."

Likewise for Riley, whose two later compositions included in "Spice Wave" bear a certain affinity with Chopin, and Nyman's contribution to the program, which Stalheim described as "propulsive, tonal, highly structured and gritty. It's not rock, but it's very kick-ass."

Present Music performs at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, June 13, at Turner Hall Ballroom.

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