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High Zero a bit of everything


The music world is governed by all sorts of rules - structure, tempo and dynamic markings, to name a few. What happens when you throw them all out and leave everything up to the performer's whim? You get something on the order of High Zero, that's what.

High Zero, billed as a Festival of Improvised Experimental Music, returns to Baltimore a year after its remarkably successful premiere, which saw dozens turned away from sold-out performances. More than 30 improvisers from this country, Canada, Italy and Holland will descend on the city for four days of spontaneous music-making, starting Thursday.

"Baltimore's had a kind of underground experimental music scene since the mid-'70s," says High Zero founder John Berndt. "About six years ago, the number of players and the size of audiences grew dramatically. Baltimore became an East Coast stop for experimental musicians."

While some festival performers have roots in classical music and others in jazz, they essentially will be out on their own unclassifiable limbs. The results can be anything and everything.

So can the instruments. In addition to traditional ones, some performers fashion their own instruments. These might be made from PVC pipe, coiled springs or, in Berndt's case, "a large sheet of amplified glass that I can get all sorts of unpredictable lyrical and liquidy sounds out of."

The festival promises a striking glimpse into the avant-garde and a creative process limited only by the imagination.

High Zero performances are scheduled for 9 p.m. Thursday at the American Visionary Art Museum, 800 Key Highway; 9 p.m. Friday at 14 Karat Cabaret, Maryland Art Place, 218 W. Saratoga Street; 12:30 p.m. and 9 p.m. Saturday at the Charles Theater, 1711 N. Charles Street; and 9 p.m. Sunday at 14 Karat Cabaret.

Tickets are $10 per session, available at Normal's Books and Records, 425 E. 31st Street.

Tuneful trip back in time

Last weekend featured lots of old - and very old - music, starting with a sonic journey through 12th-century Paris. The tour guides were the men of Lionheart, a New York-based a cappella sextet that opened the annual Carriage House Concert Series at Baltimore's historic Evergreen House Friday evening. The program provided a riveting sample of sacred and secular styles from that ancient time when the human voice was the supreme instrument, when the austere beauty of chant and more complex musical forms coexisted.

Whether intoning prayers to the Virgin or celebrating the charms of a not exactly virginal shepherdess, the smoothly blended Lionheart avoided even a whiff of academic exercise in the tightly-paced, no-intermission performance. The singers concentrated on both the spirit and letter of the music to reveal the subtlest of nuances.

On Sunday afternoon at the Baltimore Museum of Art, Pro Musica Rara opened another season of music from the 17th and 18th centuries performed on period instruments.

The program rounded up the usual suspects - Bach, Handel, Vivaldi, Telemann and Rameau - and provided welcome reminders of the soft-edged sound world they inhabited. By the time the players reached the final work, one of Telemann's "Paris Quartets," they hit their stride, tossing melodic lines back and forth with graceful ease and producing a warm, colorful blend.

The rest of the concert, though, sounded under-rehearsed. Rhythmic coordination was often lax, a particularly dangerous situation in ever-propulsive baroque music, and Shirley Matthews' harpsichord work tended to be plodding and ragged. Violinist Greg Mulligan also had some frayed moments, but gained in smoothness. More consistently satisfying were flutist Kimberly Reighley and viola da gamba specialist Kenneth Slowik.

The baroque mood continued Sunday evening at Towson University's Center for the Arts, where faculty members violinist Zoltan Szabo and pianist Reynaldo Reyes offered the first of two programs surveying Bach's violin sonatas.

If Szabo encountered some tonal unevenness, he caught the spirit of the music effectively and phrased with an underlying elegance. Reyes eschewed the pedal for the most part, creating a sonority closer to the harpsichord, and played with admirable finesse and expressiveness.

Szabo and Reyes will complete their look at Bach at 7:30 p.m. Sunday at the Center fore the Arts, Osler and Cross Campus drives. Tickets are $10. Call 410-830-2787.

The weekend also featured music from more recent eras. Following Lionheart's relatively short program Friday evening, I made it to Goucher College in time to catch the last part of the Kiev Symphony Orchestra and Chorus' extravaganza, presented by Baltimore's Second Presbyterian Church Concert Series. The ensemble, an off-shoot of a Christian ministry in Ukraine headed by American conductor and pastor Roger McMurrin, revealed more than a few unfinished edges, but the energy level was high.

The chorus made a strong impression, delivering Ukrainian folk songs with considerable panache, and so did a young tenor who caressed Lensky's Aria from Tchaikovsky's "Eugene Onegin" quite affectingly.

The hodge-podge programming included Gershwin and Kern songs (ostensibly sung in English), Nicolai Lisenko's tender "Prayer for Ukraine" and a heaven-storming "America the Beautiful."

Liturgical premiere

Sacrifice of Isaac," a liturgical drama by Jonathan Mordechai Leshnoff, will receive its world premiere at 9 p.m. Saturday at Beth El Congregation, 8101 Park Heights Ave., in Pikesville.

Leshnoff, who teaches at Peabody Conservatory and Towson University, has set a medieval poem for three male soloists, women's choir and chamber ensemble. A traditional Selichot penitential service will follow the performance. For more information, call 410-484-4539.

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