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Hardenberger, Currie in lively duet

02.01.08
Colin Currie
San Francisco Chronicle

In music, no less than in life, you have to love the odd couples. Tuesday's recital by trumpeter Hakan Hardenberger and percussionist Colin Currie was a little exercise in offbeat brilliance.

Music for this particular combination of instruments is sparse, so about half of the recital, presented in Herbst Theatre by San Francisco Performances, consisted of one performer or the other taking the stage alone. And if the results seemed a little diffuse - a trumpet melody here, a drum blowout there - the cumulative effect was often electrifying.

Hardenberger, a Swedish virtuoso, began his career with recordings of the standard classical repertoire, but most of his activity has been in contemporary music. He brings to it a wide range of musical resources - from gently burnished pianissimos to piercing pyrotechnics - as well as an exploratory restlessness that is well matched by the vibrant energy of Currie, a British musician with a long-standing focus on new music.

The two joined forces for a variety of undertakings, from "Lucid Intervals," a three-movement serenade commissioned from British composer Dave Maric, to a poignant encore of Charlie Parker's "Donna Lee," arranged for flugelhorn and vibraphone by the Swedish composer Rolf Martinsson.

Perhaps the most compelling collaboration came right at the start, with Daniel Börtz's "Dialogo 4." In this sprawling, 13-minute discussion, the trumpet applies a series of mutes that produce a variety of sonorities, and in each case the percussionist finds the instruments in his arsenal that match that sound.

The result is a like a long, winding late-night chat, in which the two participants are always clearly addressing the same topic - sometimes with an easy give-and-take, sometimes with a little more tension or dissent. Then the subject shifts, and the pair moves on together. As with any such discussion, the course meanders a little, but each passing moment is compelling.

The program concluded with André Jolivet's seven-movement "Heptade" from 1971, the oldest piece on the program. With its blend of experimental music and jazz - Currie held forth from behind an extensive trap set - the music darts hither and yon, revisiting a few basic melodic ideas in various guises. The writing is not without its arid stretches, but the performers played it with passionate commitment.

They fared better alone, though. Hardenberger delivered a luminous account of Toru Takemitsu's "Paths," which derives a full measure of quiet drama from the alternation of phrases with and without the mute. And Currie's performance of Louis Andriessen's "Woodpecker," a blistering five-minute toccata for xylophone and temple blocks, was a knockout.

But the evening's high point was "Fire Over Water," a fierce, intricate and breathtaking percussion solo by the Danish master Per Nørgård from a set of pieces called "I Ching." Holding forth at top speed on a carefully calibrated array of nearly a dozen drums, Currie created a web of cross-rhythms that kept changing without becoming chaotic.

There's an odd misstep at the end - the piece concludes with a single stroke of the tam-tam that is as corny as a chorus of "Shave and a haircut, two bits" - but until then the music is both riveting and gorgeous.