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International Dreamscapes

New York
Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center Complex
11/12/2010 -  
Ye Xiaogang: Yangzhuoyong Cuo (Western Hemisphere premiere)
Keeril Makan: Dream Lightly
Nicco Athens: Divergent Paths (World Premiere, composed for New Juilliard Ensemble)
Luca Lombardi: Lucrezio, Un oratorio materialistic. Part II: Amore (Western Hemisphere premiere)
Edward Goldman: Enzheii (World Premiere, written for New Juilliard Ensemble)

Mary Mackenzie (Soprano), Jeffrey Gavett (Baritone), Alex Hanna (Narrator), Colin Davin (Electric Guitar)
New Juilliard Ensemble, Joel Sachs (Founding Director and Conductor)

E. Goldman (© Timothy Stansell)

Almost incidentally I happened to notice that Joel Sachs, the Founding Director and Conductor of the New Juilliard Ensemble, hardly ever cued in players last night. And while most conductors trust their players to come in on time, Mr. Sachs has made a point for many decades of playing the most difficult works in the repertory, most of them never played before his performances.

Trusting his 50-odd players, some from Juilliard, some from outside, to playing these world and American premieres, with the flexibility to bring out nuances and timbres rather than keeping them on a leash shows just how brilliantly his virtuosi have been selected.

Last night they showed how composers from three different countries with five totally different styles, receive performances which must have made them overjoyed. (Four of the composers were in the audience and did show apparently heartfelt enthusiasm.)

The quintet of works were written by men who have no problem putting their ideas on paper for the utmost communication. None of the works, mostly within the 20-minute spans, had fillings, wasted measures or tricks to make them come alive. While all five were attractive and interesting, two pieces were my favorites.

One, Niccolo Athens’ Divergent Paths, was fascinating by its audacity as much as its music. Countless composers, from Mozart to Harrison, have worked with Asian modes. But nobody has ever tried to contrast and then coalesce Chinese music with plainly American music. (John Cage did compose with a version of Chinese philosophy, Tan Dun attempted mutations.)

Mr. Athens spent time in China, including Yunnan, and didn’t take the easy way, utilizing Yunnanese tribal music. His piece started with real Chinese tunes, drum tattoos, and even a few nuanced slips of the string tone. After this came the abrupt change to a Copland-like theme, followed by a fugue in Roy Harris style. Ya can’t get more American than that!

Somehow, he edged the musics closer and closer together, never quite making a duet, or even showing a commonality of styles, but essentially showing a that they could exist in one aural space. It was certainly more than an exercise, but I enjoyed the untangling of the knots as much as the performing.

The final piece was Ted Goldman’s Enzheii (he refuses to explain the title, a superfluous affectation diverting from the music).

Mr. Goldman’s describes it as “abstract”, inspired by views he saw of tree branches and lake ripples from a rocking-chair in a country home. Yet what he had notated brilliantly, were successions of motives, trills and repetitions, doubled and tripled up in different rhythms with different scales. I didn’t count the number of motifs, but they overlapped, lightly collided (like soft rubber balls), slowed and quickened, used trills over trills, grew to a crescendo, then retreated again.

The effect was a soundscape, yet I felt my mind bounding from section to another, wondering how many themes he could hold up in the air at one time. This, though, was no juggling trick, it was like a Jackson Pollock with variations flowing over the paper in ever most complex–or simpler–patterns.

Y. Xiaogang (© Fang Dongqing)

Mr. Athens wasn’t the only composer influenced by Asia. Ye Xiaogang is more than famous in his own country, As a Standing Member of the Chinese People’s Consultative Conference, he is hopefully standing up for civil rights and against slave labor. In the meantime, though, he is not only prolific but highly proficient in composition.

His Yangzhuoyong Cuo is an atmospheric piece about one of Tibet’s nine Holy Lakes Starting with stirrings of woodwinds, continuing onto some interesting atmospheric calls, it got my attention immediately with a trombone call which must have been one of those growling Tibetan trumpets which rises over the meadows during temple celebrations. I don’t know if this was the composer’s intention, but it worked.

K. Makan (© Dona Ann McAdams)

Dream Lightly had a complex structure and goal laid out by composer Keeril Makan. “Light” was indeed the adjective, since no sleeper cold drowse with such a full chamber orchestra, including drums, brass and vibraphones. But the atmosphere was stillness. Not placidity, not comatose states, but the illusions of sleep. They were tied together by harmonic notes on an electric guitar. To quote the composer, “notes produced by lightly touching the string at certain points to create sounds higher and more fragile than ordinary pitches.”

Colin Davin provided those harmonics, and the orchestra became the fantasy dreams above them.

Vocally, Italian composer Luca Lombardi provided the second part of a proposed three-part oratorio on the works of Lucretius, the First Century B.C. Italian philosopher who wished to prove that Man’s doings were never influenced by the Gods.

This part was called “Love”, and an English translation (provided by Mr. Sachs) was spoken with stentorian reverence by actor-singer Alex Hanna. The soprano and baritone chanted-sung mainly syllabic phrases over the very complex orchestral part. Mr. Lombardi’s efforts were epic, but oh, how I would like to hear the words and the music again, Philosophy and music do not take kindly to each other at first hearing.

It is not necessary to repeat my adoration for the New Juilliard Ensemble itself. At a certain point, one did not have to revere their playing. They became the messengers, essaying the most difficult terrains to achieve their multifaceted destinations.

Harry Rolnick



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