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On Guard 

by MARTY DEMAREST & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & B & lt;/span & ritney Spears is set to do a few secret "comeback" shows at smaller venues around the country, and there's a good chance you can hear her this Friday night at the Big Easy.





No promises, or anything. But the Spokane Symphony's concert that evening has a work entitled Imaginary Landscape No. 4 by a New York musician named John Cage that just might feature Brit. And conductor Eckart Preu is understandably on edge about the performance.





"I always try to forget about all of the cameras around," he says.





Preu will be taking the stage with the Symphony for this season's second -- and final -- Symphony on the Edge concert. Under scrutiny of the Big Easy's zooming video cameras, lit by the glow of their own images on giant monitors, and basking in front of an alcohol-buzzing audience, the Spokane Symphony will venture into uncharted musical territories.





John Cage's Imaginary Landscape No. 4 is set to be performed shortly after intermission. It is written for 12 radios. Twenty-four musicians from the Symphony, two at each radio, will operate the controls, both volume and frequency. During the short work, some of the radios may be tuned to static. Others may pick up talk channels. And given the still-ubiquitous presence of Britney Spears, there's a good chance you'll hear her broadcast from the stage as well. If not her, perhaps Bjork or Ludacris. Audiences at the premiere performance in 1951 heard Mozart, beamed in from a local classical station.





"As a conductor, this is a piece that's so difficult to imagine what it will sound like," Preu explains. "You can't really have a plan. It's so different from anything I've done before, and the orchestra has done before. It's challenging because you can't have a real picture of what you want, and what it could be."





Imaginary Landscape No. 4 follows one of the most familiar, almost boring works in the classical repertoire: Pachelbel's Canon. Perhaps you heard this at your last wedding, or at Easter. Regardless, I ask Preu why he chooses to lead into an experimental work with a safe, almost innocuous one.





"Pachelbel in his way is not edgy at all," Preu concedes. "But there needs to be a time for calm and beauty. Especially after intermission at the Big Easy. We want to have people experience three minutes of lulling; it's intimate and will surround them."





The surround-sound effect -- now that's pure 20th Century. Even John Cage experimented with placing musicians around (and in) the audience. By taking Pachelbel off the stage, and bringing the live performance of several musicians into the entire concert hall, Preu hopes to invigorate Pachelbel with some of the experimental liveliness that still drives contemporary music.





"Being that close up, maybe it's something that gives them an extra energy push," Preu says about playing in the Big Easy. "It's definitely not helping us acoustically, but in terms of what energy is in the air, it's so different from anything, even other smaller spaces such as the Met. So the music is different."





John Cage, Pachelbel and the ex-Mrs. Federline are strange enough musical bedfellows, but Preu's programming of Friday night's concert is decidedly wild. Instead of long symphonies, most of the selections last only a few minutes. "I think if we want to attract new listeners and young people who have never been in a concert hall, we can't bore them. A seven-minute symphonic piece can be a big challenge to someone who's used to a three-minute pop song." And so Preu has culled movements and snippets from symphonies, tone poems and suites to make a live-performance mix tape of music that ranges from Britney back to Beethoven.





"Beethoven has to be there because he's a very edgy musician," Preu says about the opening movement they're playing from Symphony No. 3, which was described as "wild and bold," as well as "garish and bizarre" after its first performance some 200 years ago.





It will be followed by a work that's entirely new to my ears (and I listen to an inordinate amount of "modern" music): H.P. Preu's Jazz-Fugue. I ask Preu if there is any relation.





"How many Preus do you know?" he asks back.





"My brother was here a couple of months ago," he continues, "and while he was visiting me, I said, 'Why don't you conduct the orchestra? And while you're at it, since you're a composer, why don't you write something?' And he composed a piece for the Symphony called Children of the Sun, and that was a success and people liked it. So I looked at what else he'd done, and I found an interesting thing -- a jazz double fugue."





The form of the fugue is old, academic and irritating -- not the sort of thing associated with the flowing conversationalism of jazz. But Preu -- H.P. -- found inspiration in the old form in much the same way composers in the 20th century found inspiration in new, popular music. Jazz infected classical music, and the result are pieces such as Milhaud's La Creation du Monde, which will also be performed.





"He felt inspired by jazz, but was using orchestral forces," Preu explains of the mid-20th-century piece. "Back then, I think the composers heard jazz, and they were excited." But lacking the cultural context for jazz, European composers exercised their enthusiasm on symphony orchestras and musicians with classical training.





That stretching continues to this day. New York has always been a hotbed for new music, and as classical musicians have reached past their old habits and begun dabbling with hip-hop and electronica, audiences have responded. New York has more new music concerts and ensembles than ever. In Los Angeles, conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen has built the orchestra into a community treasure (and increased audiences) by championing new music.





Avant garde no longer necessarily comes with dissonant, jarring sounds. It can now have the beat of Timbaland or the voice of Britney. The only thing that defines it is a lack of rules. "There are no conventions, no precedent," says Preu of the mood he hopes to conjure on Friday night. "There are no behavior patterns on how to behave at the Big Easy when the symphony is there. That's good for reinventing ourselves."





Symphony on the Edge, featuring the Spokane Symphony performing music by Beethoven, Cage, Milhaud and Preu, among others, Friday, May 4, at 7:30 pm at the Big Easy. Tickets: $29. Call: 624-1200 or 325-SEAT.

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