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The Mysteries of Kancheli

New York
Merkin Concert Hall
10/02/2010 -  
Night Prayers
Sir Edward Elgar: Serenade in E minor, Op. 20
Felix Mendelssohn: Andante from Clarinet Sonata in E-flat Major (Arranged for soloist and string orchestra)
Gaya Kancheli: Night Prayers for Clarinet, Strings and Tape (American premiere)
Othmar Schoek: Sommernacht, Op 58
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Clarinet Concerto in A Major, K. 622

Julian Milkis (Clarinet), Solomon Volkov (Host)
Ensemble du Monde, Marlon Daniel (Music Director and Conductor)

M. Daniel (© Bob Estramera)

Christening one’s 21-piece orchestra “Ensemble Du Monde” seems, at best, an exercise in optimism. But Marlon Daniel, founder and conductor for over a decade, has garnered a plethora of awards, performing at the most eclectic venues. Their Carnegie Hall debut was with Deborah Voigt, their Nickelodeon debut was “Save the Goldfish”, and they were chosen by a car-maker to accompany the unveiling of yet another elegant gas-guzzler.

But Ensemble du Monde’s opening concert at Merkin Hall, where they give a series of themed concerts each year, was highlighted for me by giving the American premiere of one of my favorite Russian-born composers Giya. Kancheli. (Russian-born, but of course he is Georgian.) Like so many of his colleagues past and present, from Scriabin to Pärt, he is plainly mystical. But in his slow, moving symphonies, he gives out the most surprising outbursts, can whisper and shout, and offer what to him are revelations, even epiphanies.

Night Prayers is one section of several chapters in his enigmatic piece World Without Christmas. Originally written for string quartet (and dedicated to Kronos), it was revised to include soprano saxophone, and here, written for the great clarinetist Julian Milkis. Milkis, the only living student of Benny Goodman, is a favorite in Russia (one reviewer called him “The best clarinet player in the world”), and Kancheli obviously was working with Mr. Milkis’ talents. That includes a beautiful soulful sound, the most fluid tonal changes, and a surprising vibrato when expected least.

Kancheli began simply enough with strings (and some tape buzzings in the background), then a clarinet tune too mundane to be Georgian. The mood was hypnotic throughout, but at times–about three times–Kancheli rose up into that apocryphal, almost cantorial wail, where Mr. Milkis screamed out a call. The call was brutal…or a cry for help….or salvation…

With Mr. Kancheli, one really doesn’t know. And even the introduction by Solomon Volkov, couldn’t come near to explaining Kancheli’s mood.

The work was fascinating, unexpected, puzzling. Perhaps the composer, who is not averse to giving out his philosophy, explained it best saying, “I like to think that all nations share a common pain”.

Well, if he like to think that, good. I like his music nonetheless.

J. Milkis (© Mr. Milkis)

To a degree, this was Mr. Milkis’ concert, for he performed three out of the five pieces on the program. One, a movement from the Mendelssohn Clarinet Sonata started with a lovely solo, but the uncredited string arrangement for strings was murky.

But the Mozart Clarinet Concerto showed both Mr. Milkis and the Ensemble du Monde to great advantage. No matter how many times the soloist may have played it or we mortals may have listened, this is music which penetrates the soul. Even more than the piano concertos, which were partly written to show artists’ skills, this piece was written for a master artist who Mozart adored, and his lines need no puzzling calls for their effect.

The Ensemble du Monde was small enough, and its players deft enough that they served as background for Mr. Milkis. Lovely phrasing, underplaying, allowing the composition to do all the work.

The two other works, for strings, could have been by the same composer. Of course Elgar’s Serenade is better known, but it is a quietly lovely piece written for a sedate Edwardian audience. Othmar Schoek is not well known here, but the Swiss composer was obviously equally sedate. He was not averse to having his opera performed in Nazi Germany, but was not a Nazi himself. His songs are quite beautiful, as was this work for strings, Summer Night.

It was conducted with great aplomb and a lot of bodily movement by Maestro Daniel, for he does make a commanding presence on the dais. His “world ensemble”, deft players all, made the music both agreeable, and, in the Kancheli, very distinguished indeed.

Harry Rolnick



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