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Preludes and Prefaces

New York
Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center Complex
04/01/2011 -  
David Hertzberg: Nympharum
Christopher Castro: Monolith
Peng-Peng Gong: Hourly Reminiscence
Grigory Smirnov: Romance for Solo English Horn and Orchestra

Jennifer Zetlan (Soprano), Hassan Anderson (English horn), Peng-Peng Gong (Piano)
Juilliard Orchestra, Jeffrey Milarsky (Conductor)

D. Hertzberg (© The Juilliard School

They flew into Juilliard School on wings of double-bass, violin, piano and composition, from Los Angeles, Nanjing, New York and Siberia. But all four composers at last night’s “Juilliard Orchestra Student Composers” concert had the honor of Jeffrey Milarsky on the podium, and an orchestra ready to give their all.

The four composers had a lot to give as well. Sometimes too much. For an education in Juilliard means inhaling the most varied information, from classes, practice and fellow students. Perhaps China and the Stalinist education of restricting talent to its own specialty limited the emotional pull of its artists, but they were not assailed every day with the wide-ranging seductive phenomena of New York.

Then again, one cannot judge a composer by a single piece, and the next comments can only be prefatory to their long bright futures

The first composer, David Hertzberg, has spent all his life in music, including studies in Darmstadt. His Nympharum, from Ezra Pound’s line, Nympharum membra disjecta (The scattered limbs of the nymphs) has already garnered the prestigious Arthur Friedman Composition Prize, for good reason. The work for high soprano–taken unerringly by the familiar voice of Jennifer Zetlan–carried, in its three Pound poems, lines not unlike Lulu, reaching, soaring into the landscape against a loud but not intrusive orchestra.

True, the three poems are aphoristic, almost haiku, and Mr. Hertzberg has clothed them in grandiose orchestral robes more fitting for an epic poem. But the lines were extravagantly good, the long epilogue to the tiny “Dawn Song” was lush and dreamy, the sounds themselves evoking auras. (Not aurae of the poems but appropriate for a poem commentary.)

C. Castro (© The Juilliard School)

Chris Castro’s Monolith he calls “a piece of absolute music”, but he has no hesitation in laying out a firm structure of “stases” and ‘momentum”. The three stases, while good roadmarks, are not stases at all, but they actually move. The first for brass (in a kind of Zarathustra open fifth), the next for winds, the next for the orchestra. The momentums at first seemed firmly academic: terrifically complex counterpoint, all correct, none of it going very far. Later, though, he provides some gorgeous orchestral sounds, and a reprise of the beginning.

This was one of those pieces where the “Me” figure was missing. It was a brilliant exercise in academia, but one felt a disinterest, a structural challenge met and subdued.

G. Smirnov (© The Juilliard School)

This may be fatuous, but I found that the most “honest” work was the least pretentious. Siberian-born Grigory Smirnov has written fairly advanced works, but the Romance For English Horn could have been composed by Elgar or Delius or even Vaughan Williams. The sound of the cor anglais itself summons up summer in the Lake District or forest streams in Devonshire, while the alto sound is distinctly that of a mallard duck. (Prokofiev had it wrong in Peter and the Wolf; the cor anglais should have been the ill-fated duck!)

Mr. Smirnov made no attempt to disguise the bucolic nature of the instrument. Hassan Anderson was the soloist, and his faultless legato, his lyrical almost improvisational style of playing fit Mr. Smirnov’s unpretentious yet verdant song. The two cadenzas were played with an expressive easiness.

One imagines that with the scarcity of concertos for this instrument (offhand, I can only think of Donizetti, Maderna and Rorem, though there must be many more), it could and should be part of the solo repertory.

P.-P. Gong (© The Juilliard School)

The final work should have been the most exciting and intriguing, save for one problem. Sitting on one side of Alice Tully Hall, I found the piano soloist–the composer himself the 19-year-old Peng-Peng Gong–could barely be heard above the orchestra. This didn’t preclude a thorough enjoyment of the work–based on a short story by Kate Chopin–since the orchestration was so bright, the sounds of the piano ruminations seemed, if semi-opaque to my faraway ears, quite dazzling, and the tempestuous finale, with drums and trumpets pounding away, the very picture of what a good one-movement concerto should be.

It was evident that the composer, playing the difficult score by memory, with a full orchestra behind him in a violent scherzo, knows his way around his instruments. One longs to hear his work without auditory barriers, for he seems, like the others here, a quite incredible young artist.

Harry Rolnick



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