Mälkki, Ensemble ACJW shine in varied program

Sun May 11, 2014 at 12:30 pm
Susanna Malkki led Ensemble ACJW Saturday night at Zankel Hall. File Photo: Hilary Scott

Susanna Mälkki led Ensemble ACJW Saturday night at Zankel Hall. File Photo: Hilary Scott

Now in its seventh season, Ensemble ACJW has become New York’s de facto leading chamber orchestra and one of the strongest ensembles in the city. The group was created through a collaboration between Carnegie Hall, Juilliard and the Weill Music Institute, working with the New York City Department of Education, and is a two-year, post-graduate training ensemble for young professional musicians.

The players not only perform but teach in the city’s public schools, and the great extramusical byproduct of their influence is the number of kids and adolescents at each of their Zankel Hall concerts, there to see their teachers play the classics, old, modern and new.

Saturday night, they played 20th- and 21st- century music in front of an enthusiastic crowd, under the leadership of conductor Susanna Mälkki. This was one of those combinations of musicians, conductor and music that, on paper, held the promise for an exciting concert, and the results exceeded expectations.

Mälkki is a terrific musician, comparable in her sympathies and music-making standard to Michael Tilson Thomas, David Robertson and Pablo Heras-Casado. She combines excellent technique, musicality, and clear, committed thinking about the scores. She has an easily commanding presence, a quality of leadership that makes her ideal for these young musicians.

All of the evening’s works—from Schoenberg, Jukka Tiensuu, George Benjamin and John Adams—were put across with an expressive force that makes everything sound in the passing moment like a masterpiece.

Under Mälkki, the phrasing was exceptionally energetic: whether playing a leading line, accompaniment or counterpoint, loud or soft, legato or staccato. There was a purposeful shape and direction to everything. With playing like this, the dated hyper-romanticism of Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony No. 1 sounded lean and gripping. The fast outer sections, where the music is constantly yearning towards a metamorphosis, were lithe, and the intonation and blend of the instruments in the sustained chords in the slower, middle section ideal.

Adams’ own Chamber Symphony is directly related to Schoenberg, using similar means of small-scale form, but refracted through the expressionism of Saturday morning children’s cartoons. Twenty years of hearing this piece leave the feeling that the music is easy to admire but difficult to enjoy. The composer’s best works convey a charming strangeness of vision, like the idea of an oil tanker hovering over San Francisco Bay in Harmonielehre, but here the vision is off. Unlike the zaniness of Carl Stalling’s music for Warner Brothers cartoons, Adam’s writing is stiff and formal. Still, this was another excellent performance, with fine ensemble playing that handled all the complex rhythmic pulses. (A better word, perhaps, is “complicated,” as the music strives mechanically for a swing it just can’t capture.)

The best music on the program were the middle pieces, Tiensuu’s Mora, from 2012, and Benjamin’s Three Inventions, music from the mid–1990s, heard in its New York premiere.

Three Inventions is a piece with a deceptively simple surface and the kind of structural and expressive riches underneath that make for an involving listen. The first section is centered on counterpoint, the second on rhythm, and the third, seemingly, on timbre. Beginning with a handful of notes, the music spins out a spare, steely form, enhanced by an orchestration—including two sets of gongs, piano, harp, contrabassoon and contrabass clarinet—that combines deep bass sounds with quick, metallic attacks and long decays. The spareness and discipline of the writing draws in the ear, which is rewarded with solo parts for flugelhorn, english horn, contrabassoon (an outstanding Nanci Belmont), and tuba, that have the quality of cogent, free improvisation.

As evocative as Three Inventions, but less mysterious, was Mora. Although not described as such—the composer refuses “to write or talk about his works”—Mora takes the form of a chamber concerto for tenor voice and an orchestra that includes a harpsichord. Soloist Topi Lehtipuu stands within the group, towards the back of the violin section.

This is surprising and wholly satisfying music, a piece that manages the difficult feat of being humorous while also being imaginative and intelligent. The voice starts it all off by laughing, and the instruments laugh in return. The vocal part is full of laughter, along with wordless syllables and phonemes—although in the third movement, the tenor appears to be singing either “Ubu Roi” or “riccola,” both of which would be appropriate to the  aesthetic.

Mora is something of a concerto grosso, with constant dialogue between singer and musicians, physically as much as musically: in the first movement, the singer plays at cueing then dismissing aphoristic solos. The wit and Berio-like theatricality are exemplified with a cadenza in the second movement that asks the tenor to handle the dauntingly simple task of maintaining and manipulating a sustained, multi-phonic chord. Lehtipuu, vibrant and charismatic throughout, did this with a dimension and richness of sound that one would have thought impossible.

Ensemble ACJW’s next concert is May 28 at Paul Hall. carnegiehall.org

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