Kurt Westerberg | Critic's Choice | Chicago Reader

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Kurt Westerberg


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The youngish academic composer Kurt Westerberg is something of a throwback among his peers. In a field that's leaning heavily toward eclecticism, he's got a predilection for abstraction--a mode of expression regarded as radical around the turn of the century, popular with the intellectual elite at mid-century, and a bit passe now. It doesn't seem to have hindered Westerberg, a professor at DePaul since 1986 and a busy accompanist at new-music venues around town. While earning his doctorate at Northwestern, he studied under the reclusive Alan Stout, who stoked his admiration for the Yankee individualism of Charles Ives and Henry Cowell (Stout was a student of Cowell); this influence later intertwined with a knack for the precisely calculated textures favored by the eastern European avant-garde to shape Westerberg's own aesthetic. A more recent mentor has been George Flynn, a senior colleague at DePaul who's also inspired by the pivotal works of Ives and Luciano Berio. Westerberg and Flynn share some compositional approaches and thematic preoccupations--their piano pieces are heavily, weirdly percussive and resolute. Westerberg's Preludes (1992), which he'll play this Sunday as part of Lunar Cabaret's monthlong festival of 20th-century chamber music, have a Spartan feel. Though each of the five solo miniatures is written within a different pitch register, their effects are astonishingly similar. A cascade of arpeggios, a rumble of low chords here and there, or an evenly spaced series of lone notes conjure a sense of desolation and isolation; yet at times this cool surface seems to barely mask seething rage. These miniatures are rigorously schematic: one of them, for instance, is a sequence of chords thickened one note at a time. This methodical bent brings to mind Ligeti and the Swedish school of composition of the 60s (which had a little-known though profound impact on the Polish avant-garde); Westerberg became interested in that movement partly because of his own Scandinavian ancestry. The evening's program also includes recent works by Patricia Morehead, Julia Miller, and Inge H. Braun; the old European vanguard is represented by Penderecki and Kagel (with pieces for solo tuba performed by old lefty Frank Abbinanti). Sunday, 3 PM, Lunar Cabaret and Full Moon Cafe, 2827 N. Lincoln; 773-327-6666. TED SHEN

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Kurt Westerberg photo.

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