Fantastical Sounds from Near and Far

New Juilliard Ensemble, Joel Sachs Founding Director and Conductor; The Peter Jay Sharp Theater, New York, NY, September 25, 2010

by Barry O’Neal

The pool of fine young musicians at The Juilliard School that Joel Sachs draws upon for his New Juilliard Ensemble is genuinely inspiring. Their first concert of the new season on Saturday night, September 25 drew a large and enthusiastic crowd to a program that included music from three European countries as well the United States. All were worthy and at least two of unusual merit.

First on the long program was a fourteen-minute piece by English composer Philip Cashian. Skein, composed in 2005, was given its first performance in the Western Hemisphere. Scored for flute (doubling bass flute), clarinet (doubling bass clarinet), bassoon (doubling contrabassoon), horn, trumpet, percussion and single strings, Skein showed Cashian’s sure command of instrumental writing. The work is generated from a ruminative viola solo that gradually draws the other members of the ensemble into a restless, rhythmically charged exploration of various textures in which the viola and marimba play particularly significant roles. There was a wispy but mercurial character to this music with much feeding of ideas from player to player at a sotto voce dynamic level. Near the end, the original viola idea was audible in the midst of the urgent, virtuosic instrumental exchanges. It was a fine opening to the program and an exciting discovery.

Poul Ruders’ twenty-two minute Kafkapriccio (2007-2008) is described by the Danish composer as “…a distillation for fourteen instruments from the massive forces of my opera, Kafka’s Trial. ” It was written for the Athelas Sinfonietta, Copenhagen and the five movements had many vivid moments of instrumental writing. Each of the first four movements was sort of a character sketch. The opening section, “Franz,” has a noisy carnival-like atmosphere colored by a touch of the klezmer style. “Felice” is a quiet, intense slow movement that begins in a fragmented way but becomes more sustained, ending with an angular Shostakovich-inflected violin solo. The music for “Leni,” a character described in the composer’s program notes as an “uncommonly horny and sluttish female factotum,” is insouciant, flippant, mercurial and reminiscent of Kurt Weill. The scoring features a siren and a slide whistle. The fourth part, “Joseph,” a portrait of the protagonist of the Kafka novel, after his arrest, is appropriately grotesque but the final movement, “The Execution,” is the most startling and affecting, with a beautiful English horn solo and the trumpet player blowing his instrument into the piano, creating a lovely, hazy overtone effect. Overall, Kafkapriccio betrayed its theatrical origins and made one anxious to hear the original opera from which the material derives. The work was brilliantly performed by the group, under Mr. Sachs’ able leadership.

After the intermission the audience was treated to an unusually witty recent work by Italian composer Salvatore Sciarrino, L’Archeologia del Telefono (2005). Scored for solo winds, horn, piano, 2 percussionists, and single strings, L’Archeologia del Telefono explores, in a very charming way, the sounds produced by the devices available to us in a society dominated by technology. The music was full of bleeps, honks (a particularly overblown sound produced by the bassoonist is the Ur-busy signal), whispers and chirps. On the verge of silence much of the time, the piece provokes a smile from the listener, and the audience clearly enjoyed the “onomatopoetic” character of the music. At ten minutes it was just the right length for a piece primarily dependent on ear-teasing sounds. Harold Meltzer’s Virginal (2002-2010), which followed, is a recent revision of a work originally written in 2002. It was inspired by the keyboard works of John Bull and William Byrd and the way in which their sequential sectional charater is defined by differing styles of keyboard figuration. Scored for single winds, horn, trumpet, harp, guitar, harpsichord, 2 percussionists and single strings, Virginal begins with a grazioso harpsichord solo. The harpsichord, played by Aya Hamada, is soon joined by guitar and harp, and the instrument is used more as a part of the ensemble than as a prominent soloist. It was a fascinating and continually engrossing work that had a Stravinskian feeling to it with the ensemble frequently employing overlapping rhythmic ostinati. A stopping and starting repeated-note passage shared alternately by winds and strings was especially beguiling, as was a trio for harpsichord, guitar and harp, with subtle percussion commentary, to which the strings were gradually added. One remarkable feature of the scoring was the care Mr. Meltzer took to make sure the un-amplified harpsichord and guitar were always audible. Ms. Hamada, Mr. Sachs and the Juilliard musicians are certainly to be commended for their clear and ravishing account of this delightful piece.

The concert ended with the New York Premiere of Chamber Concerto III: Another View (2006-7) by Elliott Schwartz, performed in celebration of the composer’s 75th birthday year. A mini-concerto for piano, Chamber Concerto III was dazzlingly played by soloist Hui Wu and an ensemble of single winds, horn, trumpet, trombone, 2 percussionists (including timpani), and single strings. The work begins with a lively, but ruminative piano solo that gradually draws in the rest of the ensemble. The writing becomes increasingly vigorous, with much feeding of motivic fragments from instrument to instrument. A warmly melodic middle section makes much use of a hymn-like fragment and the main climax of the work for the full ensemble was richly sonorous and a made a fine finish for this excellent concert.

Joel Sachs has always been one of the most adventurous programmers around, both with the groups he directs and the festivals he presents at Juilliard and with his professional ensemble, Continuum. This concert by the New Juilliard Ensemble was substantive, entertaining and beautifully performed. One looks forward eagerly to their next appearance.

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