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Kafka’s Klezmer, Eco’s Echo

New York
Peter J. Sharp Theater, Juilliard School
09/25/2010 -  
Philip Cashian: Skein (Western Hemisphere premiere)
Poul Ruders: Kafkapriccio (Western Hemisphere premiere)
Salvatore Sciarrino: L’Archeologia del Telefono (The Archeology of the Telephone) (Western Hemisphere premiere)
Harold Meltzer: Virginal (World premiere of new version, written for New Juilliard Ensemble)
Elliott Schwartz: Chamber Concerto III: Another View (New York premiere)

Aya Hamada (Harpsichord), Hui Wu (Piano)
New Juilliard Ensemble, Joel Sachs (Founding Director and Conductor)

S. Sciarrino (© Copia)

Had Erik Satie lived a bit longer, he might have written a piece called “The Archeology of the Telephone”, having nothing to do with archeology or telephones. Salvatore Sciarrino, who has no cell phone, and rarely picks up his land line and is obviously frustrated by the telephone, wrote one of the five works premiered by the New Juilliard Ensemble last night, and I fell madly, non-objectively in love with it.

I presume the self-taught Signor Sciarrino became a friend of famed semioticist Umberto Eco when he taught at the University of Bologna. Thus the composer writes in his preface to the score, “We are constantly waiting for a call to pull us away from our indifferent solitude. A personalized ring chosen among the obvious sublimities of jokes. I keep imagining these devices when, sad and triumphant, they lie on the shelves of a museum.”

I quoted that at relative length, but all of his writing takes the form, like Professor Eco, of seeing sounds, actions, words totally differently than anybody else.

As was his L’Archeologia del Telefono. The major character here was the double bass, which Jonathan Davies played to speak and sing, as if to think, muse and become annoyed. Against this instrument (and others), Signore Sciarrino pressed the violins to echo a telephone. A flatulent trombone became a busy signal. And a whole host of instruments mimicked some electrical outlets gone wrong.

It was an entertainment, perhaps, but a heartfelt entertainment, which made its wonderful point, and was composed by a man who believes that music posterity is shaped by the wind.

“If the trees come into blossom, it is so that they can dissolve themselves in spring.”

Signor Sciarrino’s last work here had been a more serious mini-opera from Kafka’s The Castle. Danish composer Poul Ruders wrote a more complex opera on Kafka, which explored both The Trial and Kafka’s own life. Five moments from this formed his Kafkappricio, receiving its Western Hemisphere performance by the New Juilliard Ensemble.

P. Ruders (© Schirmer)

Like Signor Sciarrino, Mr. Ruders always provides the unexpected. His initial “Franz” section was hardly gloomy or depressed. Knowing that the Jewish Czech writer loved klezmer music, the whole movement was circus music. Not the parody of circus music Petrushka style, but real oom-pah, tootling clarinets, bluesy French horn music. The music on Kafka’s girlfriend, was a sadder section, but soon we come upon the great seduction scene in The Trial, which ends with–yeah, you guessed it–a trombone-blast climax.

I don’t know if the opera has this kind of fun, but Mr. Ruders is such a great craftsman-artist that all five sections (including a doleful trumpet solo for the execution) were lively and lovely.

Joel Sachs, the Founding Director of the New Juilliard Ensemble, has conducted them for 18 years, so they have become an international institution with an international repertory. Thus three of the five composers giving premieres from last night were outside our country.

The third was Manchester-born Philip Cashian, whose Skein opened the program with, as the title tells, a series of tightly-woven musical knots, one transmogrifying itself into the next. The tension was not agonizing, but as the instruments changed color and moods, the series of skeins became almost visible. The puzzles continued for almost 15 minutes, but were never puzzling, since Mr. Cashian had set himself a challenge and achieved it.

I had not heard music of the two attending American composers, but one of them, Elliott Schwartz has written eclectically everything from Electronic Music: A Listener’s Guide to The Symphonies of Ralph Vaughan Williams. Obviously he takes an honestly all-encompassing view of music.

Mr. Schwartz’s Chamber Concerto III: Another View was written for his own 75th birthday, and apparently encompassed some of his own theories of music. One was “extended” pitches: notes repeated, decorated and embellished. The other was to use common chords and melodies (they sounded much like Rachmaninoff trivia) between the more dissonant passages.

Hui Wu, the solo pianist, wearing a yellow dress whose train seemed to take up half the stage, was–I can use only one word–incredible. The sweeping lines, the trills, the embellishments were so clear, so precise and so moving that I must go to her next recital.

Joel Sachs believes in utmost diversity, and Harold Meltzer’s Virginal was played on a harpsichord. The title came from the Fitwilliam Virginal Book, but had a pun-like flavor, since the instrument was named for the presumably proper young ladies who played it. (Seventeenth Century lads showed their machismo by plucking lutes!)

The music was a series of variations, starting with Aya Hamada on the keyboard, and continuing with various ensemble instruments. Most fascinating was that the entire work was so delicate in color. It wasn’t terribly soft, and the percussion had a large role to play. But these were gossamer sounds played with lapidary fragility, and executed, like all of Mr Sachs’ music, with something approaching wonder.

Harry Rolnick



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