Honoring a composer interested in . . . everything

Posted on Fri, Feb. 29, 2008

Fredrick Kaufman's 14 years at Florida International University brought increased prominence to its school of music, with expansive growth in the number and quality of students and faculty, as well as some of the most inventive and audacious concerts in South Florida. Kaufman stepped down as director in 2003 to become FIU's composer-in-residence, and, with the baton now passed to Kathleen Wilson, he takes his leave.

On Thursday, FIU bid farewell to Kaufman with an evening of music and reminiscence at Wertheim Concert Hall. Colleagues and family gave brief spoken tributes, but Kaufman is a prolific composer of more than 132 works, and the emphasis was largely on his music.

Kaufman's music virtually defines cross-genre diversity, from his early days as trumpet player with Woody Herman to his book, The African Roots of Jazz. At times the bewildering variety and restless eclecticism of his music can obscure an individual voice. Yet in many ways his eager embrace of far-flung influences -- jazz, dance, world music, Asian elements, serialism, traditional tonality, Holocaust remembrance -- makes Kaufman . . . well, Kaufman. And in a music world too often characterized by bitterness, competition and back stabbing, Kaufman's optimism, humanity and openness are refreshing.

Thursday's program largely covered music that Kaufman composed during his Miami sojourn, testifying to his ongoing exploration of stylistic variety. Sudon, for clarinet and piano, is Kaufman in his most stark, modernist mode. The work exploits wide contrasts and isolated aggressive outbursts and was given a knife-edged, bravura performance by clarinetist Paul Green and pianist Jennifer Renee Snyder.

Kaufman expanded a Presto movement he penned for Green into a new Trio, which was given its world premiere Thursday. Amernet String Quartet violist Michael Klotz joined Green and Synder, effectively putting across this short, well-crafted, tautly contrapuntal work with its tearaway finale and jazz-flavored central ''hoedown'' in which Green deftly switches to the subterranean bass clarinet.

Kaufman's love of juxtaposing highly divergent cultures is never more apparent than in his Kaminarimon, which mixes Japanese Taiko drumming with flamenco dancers. The work was presented via a previously taped performance, and its dizzying, variegated parts never quite cohere; but you have to admire this when-worlds-collide confection, which, in its rhythmic dynamism and crazy audacity, reflects Kaufman at his most idiosyncratic.

Yin & Yang is a highly concentrated two-piano work written for the Dranoff Competition. Susan Grace and Alice Ryback had the full measure of this fascinating, enigmatic music, from the widely spaced Feldman-esque opening to its violent chordal bursts, sudden silences and bleak introspection.

But it was the two Kaufman string quartets that made the most powerful impact, largely through the forceful advocacy of the Amernet String Quartet, FIU's ensemble-in-residence.

The String Quartet No. 5 may have derived from a Catalan folksong, but there is no postcard quaintness about this music. This is tough, hard-eyed stuff, closely argued and with insistent, rhythmic propulsion. Led by first violinist Misha Vitenson's laser-like intensity, the Amernet brought out the driving Bartokian vehemence of this aggressive music.

The String Quartet No. 6, written for the Amernet in 2006, shows that Kaufman's creative fires continue to burn brightly. Cast in a densely argued single movement, the ''Urban'' quartet is a musical portrait of New York City. At times the music feels like a string descendant of Copland's Quiet City with a pensive nocturnal lyricism, though invested with harder modern edge.

The layered rhythms instill a sense of unease and nervous energy reflecting Manhattan bustle. But when the music swings into a hard-driving motoric jazz section, the quartet is all Kaufman. The final section is built on a propulsive ostinato riff by violist Klotz that builds increasing complexity and races to a frenetic conclusion. Led by Vitenson, the Amernet gave this terrific music bristling virtuosic advocacy, showing it to be one of Kaufman's finest achievements.

Lawrence A. Johnson is The Miami Herald's classical music critic.

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