Friday, March 26, 2010

music for a (little) while

Carnegie Hall Presents
Wednesday, March 24 2010
Ensemble ACJW
Thomas Adès , conductor
Cecelia Hall, mezzo-soprano
Daniel Taylor, countertenor
Gregory DeTurck, piano

Something about this performance had a certain university-new-music-concert vibe. Maybe it was the unfortunately weak audience attendance, with only about a third of Zankel full. Maybe it was the stage setup changes which seemed to last longer than the pieces themselves. Or maybe it was the cockroach scurrying by my seat, which seemed completely at ease in its environment.

In spite of all this, Adès led a vibrant and exhilarating evening of music (I suppose he didn't know about the roach). I'm a big fan of composer-curated series, and this was the middle event of Adès' Carnegie residency, sandwiched between his chamber recital with Steven Isserlis and Anthony Marwood last weekend, and his solo piano recital tomorrow night. Thursday's program, of music by Brahms, Gerald Barry, Purcell, and the composer himself, worked well. The theme seemed to be very short pieces: a set of Brahms lieder clocked in at only five minutes, Barry's Sextet ended in nine, and each of the Purcell tunes were fairly brief.

One of Adès' early works, the 1994 The Origin of the Harp, opened the program. This delicately bizarre piece features there clarients, three violas, three cellos, and percussion, emphasizing all these low sonorities. Sarah Beaty brought rigor and passion to the languid solo clarinet part, which gradually got crazier as the piece went on. After a delightful tradeoff between prepared, plucked piano and pizzicato strings, the piece concluded with a downward corkscrew of an end, fading away quickly. It was probably the best work on the program, and an excellent starter.

After one of many extended set changes, the ensemble performed Brahms' Ophelia Lieder, with texts drawn from Hamlet. Cecilia Hall lovingly shaped these aphoristic songs, in a 1988 arrangement for 2 clarinets and 3 low strings--the restrained colors of the instruments and concise text settings evoked Webern. The first half concluded with Gerald Barry's Sextet, the weakest link on the program. Despite interesting games of jaunty rhythms passed between instruments, the work lacked energy and the lines never really locked together. I'm not sure if this was Barry's or ACJW's fault, but it just didn't get off the ground.

Following intermission, Adès led a fun little set of Purcell pieces, which alternated between songs for countertenor Daniel Taylor and brief instrumental interludes. Taylor's small, light voice sounded tinny at first, but gradually warmed up to the hall and his sweet sound matched the text of "One Charming Night" (from The Fairy Queen) well. The four instrumental works were a bit unpolished, but endearingly so; the graceful and rustic lilt of the Fantasy on a Ground in D Major seemed to lend itself to rough playing. With "An Evening Hymn," the final song of the set, Taylor brought a magisterial, purely British sound to the repeated concluding "Hallelujahs," a series of pompously refined ornaments. (Unfortunately, this entire section of the evening was distracted by our friend the scuttling roach.)

Adès ended the night with one of his own works whose title summed up the evening: Concerto Conciso. A concerto for piano and small ensemble of winds, violins, bass, and percussion, the piece opened with bouncy, weirdly jazzy riffs featuring the highest and lowest notes of the instruments. Gestural winds and strings, along with a wild clarinet, coalesced into a complete freakout reminiscent of Magnus Lindberg's Kraft. Pianist Gregory DeTurck played the opening of the second movement, a Romantic flourish worthy of Rachmaninoff, with dramatic heft. The first movement's freakout quickly returned, with percussive piano effects accompanying screechily gorgeous violins. In the finale, bouncing lines cascaded throughout the ensemble, with an almost boogie-woogie piano part. Adès conducted with precision, bringing a wonderful ensemble clarity to the abrupt but well-placed ending.


  1. "There clarients"!? I *love* "there clarients!!"

  2. Hey, remember no one's paying me to write these :)
    I'm going to leave it, just for fun. Actually I remember seeing that I wrote "there cellos" and changing it, so 2 out of 3 (or should I say two out of there) ain't bad.

  3. We're writers, dammit! Not typists! ;-)