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Focus! 2005: Breaking the Chains: The Soviet Avant-garde, 1966-1991, Music by Pärt, Kancheli, Silvestrov, Schnittke, New Juilliard Ensemble, Joel Sachs (Director), Juilliard Theater, New York City, 21st January 2005 (BH)

Arvo Pärt: Pro et Contra (1966)
Giya Kancheli: Midday Prayers (1991) (New York premiere)
John Keats: “Ode to a Nightingale”
Valentin Silvestrov: Ode to a Nightingale (1982-3, revised 2000)
Alfred Schnittke: Violin Concerto No. 3 (1978) (New York premiere)

New Juilliard Ensemble
Joel Sachs, Director and Conductor
Christopher Gross, Cello
Moran Katz, Clarinet
Nathan Fletcher, Treble
Jaron Farnham, Reader
Alexandra Cooke, Mezzo-Soprano
Daniel Spiegel, Piano
Augustin Hadelich, Violin

“Talk about bacon and ice cream!” exclaimed my friend delightedly, after hearing Alfred Schnittke’s Violin Concerto No. 3, the exuberant finale to the opening night of Focus! 2005, the annual festival curated by Juilliard’s ever-searching Joel Sachs. As with many of this composer’s pieces, this one explores the extreme contrasts between tonality and atonality with considerable vitality, and plunges the soloist into a blur of trills, glissandi and other techniques, and all this activity is backed up by an ensemble of thirteen winds and four strings. (The unusual instrumentation was mandated by a commission for a program that also included Berg’s Chamber Concerto and Hindemith’s Kammermusik No. 2.) Violinist Augustin Hadelich gave a dashing performance, devouring the concerto’s considerable demands with skill and a keen appetite. To quote Sachs’ always thorough and informative notes, “Schnittke’s music is known for its powerful dramatic impact, attracting some, alienating others, but rarely leaving the listener neutral,” and certainly the incisive playing of Hadelich and his colleagues in the New Juilliard Ensemble bore this out.


The program opened with Arvo Pärt’s Pro et Contra, written in 1966 and considerably before the works in the mid-1980s that most of his fans (including me) have grown to admire. (Those who like the composer’s warmly stirring Fratres will find that work quite different from this one.) This work opens with a sturdy major chord that is followed immediately by a complex, razzing one that virtually thumbs its nose at its predecessor, and then the cellist, here the excellent Christopher Gross, enters immediately with a huge array of special effects, knocking on the strings and side of the instrument, both with knuckles and with the palm of the hand. In a slight diversion, Mr. Gross apparently broke a string, which had an unforeseen plus, enabling me to experience the first five minutes of the piece again, and it was fascinating to watch Gross work his way through the intricate opening a second time. Also striking was the final Allegro, which concludes with an obsessive ticking passage for the cellos and basses that then hurries to a richly scored conclusion that sounds, believe it or not, sort of like Gabrieli.

Kancheli’s Midday Prayers is a mostly quiet work with brief outbursts, as well as innocent moments that might seem almost bland in the hands of another composer. However, Kancheli’s orchestration, that includes an electric bass, might automatically preclude any hint of boredom. Near the end of the piece, the treble singer enters, here Nathan Fletcher of the St. Thomas Choir School, whose simply delivered tones sounded timeless and slightly sad, as if we were witnessing the end of a funeral service on a distant hill. Moran Katz was excellent in the luminous clarinet part.

After intermission, Jaron Farnham gave a pleasantly unmannered reading of John Keats’ Ode: To a Nightingale, to preface Valentin Silvestrov’s setting of it that followed. In this performance the piano was placed dead centre, with brass and strings on the left and percussion, winds and harp on the right. Silvestrov’s gentle hand frames each phrase from the singer with a soft pulse by the brass and strings at the beginning, that is answered by twittering birdlike motifs in the piano, flute and harp. Singing in Russian, Alexandra Cooke brought a strongly focused, full sound to the part, and patiently shaped Silvestrov’s patterns. (Interested listeners may want to read my MusicWeb review of his recent recording called Silent Songs.)

And then came that Schnittke. But it should be emphasized that in the exotic fare on this year’s Focus! he is by far one of the best-known composers, most of whom are still virtually unknown, at least in this country. Upcoming concerts will feature music of Mikhail Alekseev, Alexander Aslamazov, Josef Bardanashvili, Victor Suslin and Karmella Tsepolenko. Give yourself ten points for each of these names you recognize.


Bruce Hodges

The 2005 Focus Festival schedule can be found here.



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Contributors: Marc Bridle (North American Editor), Martin Anderson, Patrick Burnson, Frank Cadenhead, Colin Clarke, Paul Conway, Geoff Diggines, Sarah Dunlop, Evan Dickerson Melanie Eskenazi (London Editor) Robert J Farr, Abigail Frymann, Göran Forsling, Simon Hewitt-Jones, Bruce Hodges,Tim Hodgkinson, Martin Hoyle, Bernard Jacobson, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Ben Killeen, Bill Kenny (Regional Editor), Ian Lace, Jean Martin, John Leeman, Neil McGowan, Bettina Mara, Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Simon Morgan, Aline Nassif, Anne Ozorio, Ian Pace, John Phillips, Jim Pritchard, John Quinn, Peter Quantrill, Alex Russell, Paul Serotsky, Harvey Steiman, Christopher Thomas, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)