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Seen and Heard International Concert Review


American Premieres: New Juilliard Ensemble, Joel Sachs, Conductor, Juilliard Theater, New York City, September 18, 2004 (BH)


Remigijus Merkelys: Compass (2003), U.S. Premiere

Alexander Shchetynsky: Face to Star (1991), U.S. Premiere

Haukur Tómasson: Áhringur (1993-94), U.S. Premiere

Menachem Zur: Threads of the Heart (2003), World Premiere

Robert Nasveld: Music for the Billions (1998, rev. 2002), New York Premiere



In a city where scores of concerts sprout like mushrooms on any given night, one could not ask for a more invigorating start to the fall season than the intriguing smorgasbord offered by Joel Sachs and the New Juilliard Ensemble, the latter formed from some of the school’s best young performers and now celebrating its 12th season. Mr. Sachs is widely admired for his adventuresome ear, but this was a particularly well-chosen slate, with five strong pieces making their first appearances here. From the musicians’ point of view, it must be inspiring to be able to play recent music of such high-quality – and judging from the audience’s enthusiastic response, their efforts communicated what these eclectic composers wanted to say.


Merkelys’ Compass opens with a strident high note on the synthesizer, buzzing like some kind of needling insect over the rest of the ensemble, whose parts have overtones of jazz. The swingy influences bubble over at the end, when the saxophone bursts into the mix with a wildly insistent, improvised solo that seems to come out of nowhere, here played by the exuberant Jonathan Irabagon. Alexander Schchetynsky’s Face to Star, completed in 1991, opens with a delicious, dense first chord for the whole ensemble, eventually opening up into a slow-fast-slow structure with harmonies that sound rather like Alban Berg. It ends with cymbals and marimba exquisitely soft, almost a little throwaway gesture trickling into nothingness.


Tómasson’s Áhringur (Annual Ring) is in four movements connected by a cello solo (beautifully played by Elspeth Poole), and offers brittle, shimmering textures that to these ears evoked the peculiar light and texture of Icelandic air and water. I loved the ending, with a small, delicate figure for the strings that, as in the Schchetynsky, almost seems to quietly evaporate as you are hearing it. Menachem Zur was on hand to speak before the world premiere of Threads of the Heart, which in his notes he describes as "more impressionistically French than German" and that’s not an inaccurate assessment. But I also found it droll, sly and rather amusing in its exploration of tonal ambiguity.


In Sachs’ excellent notes, Robert Nasveld says, "When I had graduated from the Conservatory in Utrecht long ago…I felt a great need for self-renewal. On the one hand I wanted to rid myself of the remnants of other people’s influences; on the other hand, as far as I was concerned, the big fat bone of dissonance tossed to us at the beginning of the twentieth century had in my view been picked clean." Nasveld introduced his Music for the Billions (today’s winning title, by the way) by remarking, "It’s always interesting to see how young people survive my music," but his bracing, sometimes humorous study wasn’t as difficult to enjoy as he seemed to imply. The work has clear nods to jazz and minimalism, with sometimes almost banal-sounding sonorities. In the third movement, he tries to deal with an "unbelievably silly tune in which sixth chords flew about my ears." Few composers at the moment would even bother to tackle a subject seemingly rife with potential triteness, let alone come up with Nasveld’s exhilarating results. I didn’t find it forbidding at all; on the contrary, let’s get his music here more often! Good for Mr. Sachs and his outstanding young musicians for illuminating this oddity and the four previous works, all of which deserve further hearings. This is exactly the kind of rousing evening that gets people excited about contemporary music – and wanting to hear more of it.


Bruce Hodges






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