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Rube Goldberg? Meet My Fair Mládí

New York
Weill Recital Hall, Carnegie Hall
02/07/2011 -  
Leos Janácek: Mládí
David Bruce: Steampunk (New York Premiere)
Ludwig van Beethoven: Septet in E-flat Major, Opus 20

Ensemble ACJW: Emily Popham Gillins (Violin), Nathan Schram (Viola), Hamilton Berry (Cello), Brian Ellingsen (Bass), Carl Oswaki (Oboe), Alexy Gorokholinsky (Clarinet), Moran Katz (Clarinet, Bass Clarinet), Shelley Monroe Huang (Bassoon), Leelance Sterrett (Horn)

ACJW playing D. Bruce (© Herring Rollmop)

Ensemble ACJW is an amorphous ensemble which plays anything except amorphous music. Specifically, each ACJW concert has anywhere from five to about 25 virtuoso players depending on the music. Sponsored by Juilliard, Carnegie Hall, Weill Music Institute, along with the NY City Department of Education, these musicians not only perform but–perhaps more important–they partner with music teachers in New York’s beleaguered public schools to share their artistry.

Their repertory is as lively and youthful as their ages. Last night was especially exuberant, since they premiered a wildly happy work by the noted American-British composer David Bruce. The composer’s notes of Steampunk went into detail on the art movement which inspired the music. But the main idea–an alternative history where electricity never existed and everything is steam-powered”–says it all.

The six movements had fancy titles (“Dark, brooding, mechanically menacing”), and the music kept to the description. But essentially, this was a mechanical tour de force. At times it resembled Mossolov’s futuristic Steel Foundry or the 1920’s German music of Hindemith and Weill. At times, this was Chaplin’s music for Modern Times. But it was all David Bruce.

Which means that is was extremely well-ordered, without a single harsh harmony, the eight instruments playing pinpoint notes against each other, a virtual contrapuntal festival. An exceptionally complex music, yes. But like a Rube Goldberg invention, all the different squawks, squeaks, pipings, whines and cries somehow came together.

In other words, Steampunk was joy, real joy.

L. Janácek bust in Olomouc (© Michal Manas)

Ironically, it followed Janácek’s Youth, written when he was 70 years old. Nothing ironic in this, though, for his love affair with a young girl, whether consummated or not, gave him that youthful enthusiasm which disappears in more ordinary folk.

This was intense music, music of memories without regret. It might have been piccolo and bassoon, or the medieval chants of Czech monks, but when played by this group, the intensity–especially the dynamic horn virtuosity of Leelanee Sterrett–was young and always bright.

Finally, another youthful work, Beethoven’s Septet, written before he was 30. (Actually, middle-aged for that time, though he would constantly change.) Beethoven himself became bored with its popularity in Vienna and around Europe, but he probably made some good money from the work, and had nothing to be ashamed of.

Neither did the ACJW Ensemble. The work was aged compared to the others on the program, but they played it with such enthusiasm, quirks, and delightful partnerships that the Septet fit in oh nicely with the other offerings.

Harry Rolnick



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