Give young conservatory a chance

The SoBe Music Institute's performance had its awkward moments, but what do you expect from a 3-year-old?

Carson Kievman is a man on a musical mission. Three years ago the energetic 58-year-old composer launched his SoBe Music Institute in a rundown Miami Beach park clubhouse.

While still in its formative stages, Kievman's fledgling conservatory appears on the verge of assuming a higher profile. Its lease was recently extended, and the institute is among 77 finalists for Arts Partnership grants from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

In addition to providing music lessons for children, teens and adults, the institute presents regular free concerts featuring faculty musicians and guest artists. While short in terms of length, last Friday's chamber program at the Fisher Clubhouse was venturesome by any standard, featuring Steve Reich's Different Trains and the premiere of a Kievman work inspired by the 25th anniversary of John Lennon's death.

Despite the varied instrumental quality and some want of tonal refinement, performances were generally solid and committed. Kievman conducted capably and provided brief, informal introductions, and a refreshing, 1960s ambience prevailed with many families and (well behaved) small children in attendance.

Few composers begin their careers by creating an instant classic, as Samuel Barber did with his timeless Adagio for Strings. The slow movement of Barber's String Quartet remains an astonishingly mature, always deeply moving effort for a 28-year-old. Kievman led an 11-member string ensemble -- which included his 15-year-old daughter Dakota -- in a well-molded performance that would have benefited from more detailed, dynamic marking.

Kievman was represented by Dear John. A movement from his Chamber Symphony No. 1(628), the music is a tribute to John Lennon which incorporates a quote from the late Beatle's Strawberry Fields Forever and takes its melodic profile from a short valedictory sentence about Lennon's passing.

While Kievman's affection for Lennon is clearly genuine, Friday's premiere proved to be pretty tough going. The music relies on a massed string writing punctuated by thunderous timpani attacks, and while the heavy textures and stolid rhythms convey a darkly emphatic memorial of sorts, the piece makes little effort to reflect Lennon's breezy wit and musical spirit.

Dislocation and a sense of restless, constantly shifting rhythms are manifest in Steve Reich's Different Trains. Written in 1988, this work for string quartet and vocal loops was inspired by the composer's childhood travel between separated parents in different cities, with a darker subtext of the trains that took European Jews to their tragic end.

Cast in three continuous sections, the music overlays prerecorded spoken words of train conductors and others with the live and prerecorded string quartet. Like many Reich works, Different Trains goes on too long but is compelling and undeniably inventive in its use of rhythmic fragments mined from taped voices.

Violinists Luis Fernandez and Adam Diderrich, violist Scott O'Donnell and cellist Andres Vera showed admirable stamina and did a commendable job of maintaining a firm, rhythmic pulse. The playing of Diderrich and O'Donnell was particularly incisive. Overall, the presentation was less consistent. The amplified voices were not distinct, and a speaker placed directly in front of Vera muted the sound of his instrument.

Still, this was a largely enjoyable event, and no one should underestimate Kievman or discount his ambition to build the SoBe Institute into a Juilliard-quality conservatory.

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


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