EAR Unit concert is a limber, muscular exercise

Special to The Times

To kick off its new concert season Wednesday evening at REDCAT, the patently venturesome California EAR Unit opted to build a program around a centerpiece.

That strategy can be dangerous, akin to an art exhibition curated with too tight or loose a conceptual hand. But the results at REDCAT were thrilling, partly because the centerpiece, Dutch composer Louis Andriessen's "Dubbelspoor" (written in 1986 but receiving its Los Angeles premiere) is a strange, flexible organism, at once rigid and spacious. In the atmosphere it created, the music of the other composers on the program got along well.

The concert felt remarkably easygoing, considering the immediate associations engendered by Andriessen's well-known music. As heard in "Zilver," recorded a decade ago by the EAR Unit, his tough, edgy brand of "Euro-minimalism" is often graced with muscular Modernist touches -- in contrast with, say, Philip Glass' cozy arpeggio machinery. Andriessen abhors coziness.

"Dubbelspoor," an enchanting oddity scored for the delicate timbres of piano (often pianissimo), harpsichord, vibraphone and celesta, is kinder and gentler than much of his music. Although fragile in texture and rhythmic displacement, and flecked with chords of a notably jazz-like color, the work gains intrigue through its harmonic tensions and pregnant pauses. A more kinetic section emerges late in the piece but yields finally to the spirit of cool, airy, ringing chords.

Also on the program was Raphaele Biston's ".oscil," a sinuous and loosely scored duet for cello and bass clarinet (Erika Duke-Kirkpatrick and Philip O'Connor, respectively, playing more than respectably).

Minnesota composer Ann Millikan, whose music was recently recorded by the EAR Unit for the Innova label, presented the world premiere of a tonally challenging yet emotionally involving ensemble workout, "The Woodcarver and the Blacksmith." Protagonist roles went to cello and flute, and Unit veterans Duke-Kirkpatrick and Dorothy Stone proved their estimable worth once again.

An incidental aspect of this program related to the Los Angeles Philharmonic, occupants of the main theater upstairs in the Walt Disney Concert Hall complex. Liza Lim, whose mesmerizing and darkly impressionistic "Veil" opened the evening, wrote an architecture-specific orchestral piece for the Phil to commemorate the hall's opening season in 2004.

And the late Franco Donatoni, whose "Arpege" closed the evening, was Philharmonic music director Esa-Pekka Salonen's teacher. A showpiece of frenzied yet focused ensemble virtuosity, "Arpege" had a seductive complexity that engaged rather than alienated, a character the EAR Unit illuminates with the best of them.

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