New Juilliard Ensemble offers a varied array of new music

Sat Apr 11, 2015 at 12:46 pm
Max Grafe's "Kheir: Fantasy for Clarinet and Sinfonietta" was performed by the New Juilliard ensemble Friday night.

Max Grafe’s “Kheir: Fantasy for Clarinet and Sinfonietta” was performed by the New Juilliard Ensemble Friday night.

The New Juilliard Ensemble presented a program spotlighting winners of its 2015 composition competition Friday night at Alice Tully Hall. The program was marked with variation in style and drama, conducted by the Juilliard Ensemble’s founding director Joel Sachs, a hero of new music programming and education in New York.

The competition winners – Simon Frisch and Max Grafe, both New York state natives – were presented first. Frisch’s Sandglass Vespers worked around an elastic pulse set by celesta and harp with strings and reeds interwoven. The music was lovely and delicate, never quite repeating itself (even the pulse wasn’t quite consistent) but never breaking from the mold it had set. The 8 p.m. start was a bit late for a proper vespers service but the feeling of the dimming day and the enveloping night was strong in the music.

Grafe’s Kheir: Fantasy for Clarinet and Sinfonietta hit harder, with pizzicato strings, muted piano and woodblocks as clarinetist Miao Zhao played register-hopping melodies. Like Vespers, it stayed within its own design without repeating itself but here with thick, bold underscoring from tuba, bassoon and contrabass. The orchestrated rhythms grew and receded in both tempo and complexity to a climactic resolution, although (as the composer wrote in the program) one with a “profound sense of unease.”

After a drifting opener and a fairly pounding second course, Paul Desenne’s The Life of Benjamin – A Monkey Symphony was rich and dynamic, performed by a slightly larger ensemble (the instrumentation built steadily from 14 to 18 pieces over the course of the night). Strong themes were punctuated by a pair of percussionists alternating with playful flute and violin chirps (perhaps the monkey’s song). The title was no joke. Some passages made it impossible not to imagine swinging from trees as larger predators lumbered underneath. Indeed, the piece was written as a memorial for a monkey from Desenne’s native Venezuela who ended up living with the painter Allen Hirsch in New York City.

Reza Vali’s Folk Songs, Set No. 14 was darkly beautiful from the soft, initial strike of piano and percussion and slowly wavering strings. The remarkable countertenor Eric Jurenas, who recently astounded in an Axiom Ensemble Ligeti program, gave a breathtaking delivery to the setting of Farsi odes of love, especially in the fourth of the five songs, the “syllabic” Imaginary Folk Song in which he sang fast, repeating phonemes against enormous orchestral swells. The music didn’t strain for Arabic affect but remained mindful of its origins with slight dissonances and thick textures. Vali’s education was in Western classical music but his love for the music of his Iranian homeland has resulted in 30 sets of pieces stemming from that tradition.

The program ended with an ode to the reckless assuredness of Icarus in a piece named for the tragic hero of Greek myth. Eric Lindsay’s composition was rhythmic, spirited, fast-paced and suitably free-flying. Quick unison lines in the strings and woodwinds were pushed almost beyond their means by the two percussionists, one keeping steady time on a full drum kit. Curiously, though, they never got to the end of the story. Icarus never seemed to reach the sun, his wax wings never melted. The piece and the evening (and for that matter the ensemble’s 22nd season) ended in a perdendo and then a single, almost cute, little chord from the harp.

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