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In performance: New Juilliard Ensemble

Web-only review:

New Juilliard Ensemble takes a chance
by Charles T. Downey

The New Juilliard Ensemble closed out the year of free concerts at the Freer Gallery of Art on Saturday night. The program consisted of 20th-century pieces incorporating chance principles, allowing the musicians to determine the form of the work according to the composer's guidelines. These talented students from the Juilliard School not only performed at the high level one would expect but also obviously relished exploring the boundaries between improvisation and composition opened up by this experimental music.
(read more after the jump)

Perhaps too many Christmas concerts this month have warped my mind, but the program did seem to follow a familiar pattern, forming something like a Lessons and Carols service for postmodernism. Soprano Catherine Hancock opened with an unaccompanied piece by John Cage, "Eight Whiskus," almost chant-like in its austere solemnity. Henry Cowell's "26 Simultaneous Mosaics," with its emphasis on various kinds of metallic percussion, served as "Carol of the Bells." For those enamored of historically informed performance, Cage's "Music Walk" featured an actual dial-tuned transistor radio, a relic of a bygone era.

There was even a sing-along, of sorts, when the group's director, Joel Sachs, turned to conduct the audience, indicating that we should join the performers in shouting the name of Caliban in Francis Schwartz's "Cannibal-Caliban" -- brilliantly executed, it must be said. The concert concluded with a large cantata featuring all of the performers, Cage's "Aria," augmented with parts from the Concert for Piano and Orchestra. The only difference was that no one, including the performers, knew strictly what would happen next, and the "music" included all kinds of random sounds and noise, even gestures and facial expressions conducted in time by Sachs.

-- Charles T. Downey

By Anne Midgette  |  December 14, 2009; 6:46 AM ET
Categories:  local reviews  
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OK, here are my (brief) reviews for this week. I put all of them here, even though one of them was reviewed elsewhere on this site.

First, the Azoitei / Stan Enescu-Brahms recital. It does make sense to put these composers together on a program since Enescu did meet Brahms in Vienna and played in the student orchestra under his baton, and his influence remained all life long. For those who are curious, note that the Library of Congress has a concert of Enescu conducting the Brahms 4th Symphony with the New York Philharmonic - from the same concert, there's also the "Emperor" concerto with a young Rudolf Serkin at the piano.

But I digress. I will not write about the performances of the Brahms sonatas since I don't listen to much chamber music (this is something I hope to rectify with time) and can't compare. But the interpretation of Enescu's 3rd Violin Sonata was marvelous, spontaneous but in the same time attentive to details. One moment that particularly stayed with me was the sustained piano note at the end of the 2nd movement. Magical.

On Thursday night, the University of Maryland presented a program of mostly wind and brass music by Torke, Enescu, Schuller, and Varese - talk about adventurous programming! I missed the Torke piece, due to traffic. The Varese piece (Ameriques) seems to me dated, but it was impossible not to be impressed by how a student orchestra, composed by many who are not even music majors, handled the piece (no, not everything was perfect, but was still mighty impressive.)

From Schuller we heard the Symphony for Brass and Percussion, which was premiered and recorded by Mitropoulos. I especially liked the third movement with muted trumpets. Finally, the Enescu Dixtuor. This is simply a beautiful piece, which needs to be experienced in concert as a recording does little justice (and I have in my library recordings by the composer himself, by Constantin Silvestri - arguably the greatest conductor of Enescu's music and a greatly underrated master - and by the Viotta ensemble which is made of the principals of the Concertgebouw Orchestra.) The conductor, Michael Votta Jr. - the director of the University of Maryland Wind Orchestra - gave a well-judged, understated performance.

Finally, Friday at the Met, the new production of the Tales of Hoffmann. The interesting thing about modern opera productions is that the stage directors ignore every instruction from the composer and librettist, except for sex. And so it was here. For example, the famous Barcarolle, "Belle nuit, รด nuit d'amour", well, it really was a night of love and then some. Yes, I know, Giulietta is a courtesan, but sex can mean various things. There is of course the Bacchantic sex, which is what was on the stage and would be appropriate for, say the Venusberg scene in Tannhauser, but not for the romantic music that we were hearing. My point: Bartlett Sher's direction was heavy handed. And not only with respects to sex. In the final scene, we saw Olympia, Antonia, and Giulietta back together on the stage: yes, Mr. Sher,we got it, they represent the one and same woman, Stella, the libretto tells us that. But since the singer who sings Antonia is the same who sings Stella (Netrebko), we see that only Antonia sings - which really should be Stella - so we're lead into thinking that perhaps Antonia was the more important, and this is unlikely to be Sher's point, and definitely not that of Offenbach.

If only the singing were better, but a big minus is the absence of native French speakers (what does the Met do for French operas? - why, it imports Brits! - Alan Oke in this case), or at least of those like Susam Graham have an understanding of the style. But while I enjoyed Alan Held's sturdy voice in Wagner roles, it was to heavy for Offenbach; something similar can be said about the Giulietta (Ekaterina Gubanova.) Olympia (Kathleen Kim) was OK, but she did not erase memories of Natalie Dessay. I really like Joseph Calleja's warm, mediteranean sounding voice, but again, it did not have the French elegance; I would love to hear the singer in Italian repertoire. Kate Lindsey (Nicklausse / the Muse) sang well but her voice is too small for the Met. The best singing came from Anna Netrebko; I am not usually a fan, but credit must be given where due. James Levine's understated conducting was also a plus.

Posted by: cicciofrancolando | December 14, 2009 11:46 AM | Report abuse

One small correction. Schuller's Symphony for Brass and Percussion was premiered not by Mitropoulos - who did perform and record it - but by Leon Barzin.

I apologize for this - next time I will read the notes more carefully! :-)

One final thought for the new Hoffmann. In the past, I was always looking forward for each revival of Otto Schenk's production, and tried not to miss it. Unless there's a great cast, it's unlikely that I will attend any revival of the new mise-en-scene.

Posted by: cicciofrancolando | December 15, 2009 12:15 AM | Report abuse

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