Weill Hall, Carnegie Hall
Osvaldo Golijov: Last Round
George Crumb: Vox Balaenae
Antonin Dvorák: Piano Quintet No. 2 in A Major, Opus 81
Ensemble ACJW: Erin Lesser (Flute), Gabriela Martinez, Michael Mizrahi (Pianos), Andrew Beer, Angelia Cho, Owen Dalby, Joanna Marie Frankel, Joanna Kaczorowska (Violins), Leah Swann (Viola), Claire Bryant, Julia MacLaine, Caitlin Sullivan (Cellos), Kristoffer Saebo (Bass)
For those not in the know, ACJW is a not very clever anagram for some extremely clever musicians. I’m not exactly sure of the meaning, but with the explanation that these are the “Fellows of the Academy—a program of Carnegie Hall, the Juilliard School and The Weill Music Institute” the words for the initials should fit in somewhere.
The great assets are the players themselves. They are young, extremely talented, they are ready for any challenge, and they usually succeed in what they attempt. Last night’s first half (see CODA) had only two works, but both were from two very popular contemporary composers, who have their own school, and who have probably influenced nobody except second-raters who don’t know how to be original.
Certain Oswaldo Golijov is the composer of the year, with good reason. His background is a triangle of South America, the Middle East and Europe. And somehow, he has been able to gather this in packages which are entertaining, sometimes brilliant, and always different than anybody else.
Last Round is one of his earlier works, a mere 14 minutes, composed 11 years ago, but filled with sound and quite happy fury. The “European” idea is a kind of concerto grosso, where two string groups play against one another, physically as well as musically. It can be done with a chamber orchestra (the original setting). Or, in this case, pairs of strings, with one bass fiddle. The violins and violas stand against each other on stage, bows raised in sword positions, and with a tango rhythm by celli and bass (the piece was a kind of homage to Piazzolla) they groups challenge each other playing variations and improvising. The bluegrass equivalent of this would was Duelling Banjos, but the strings are just as audacious.
The last five minutes are slowed down, so not as much fun. It does have a beautiful violin solo, here played by Joanne Kaczorowska, and the whole movement goes by in such a flash that Last Round is a delightful time-waster.
Not so by another “classic” by George Crumb. Crumb. A few decades ago, Crumb was all the rage, his eerie Bartokian sounds, his settings of Lorca poetry, and with dreamy poetic works like Star Child, and Echoes of Time and the River, staged and played with mesmeric attraction.
Vox Balaenae is a short 18 minutes, set for extremely virtuosic flautist, a pianist who can use the inner strings, and a good cellist. It also calls for atmospheric lighting (an aquamarine blue), masks for the players (not used here), and some wandering around (ditto). The problem is that the title means “Voice of the Whale” and Mr. Crumb takes that all too seriously. The flautist, singing and playing an opening cadenza—brilliantly managed by Erin Lesser—makes whale sounds. After this, the piano with pedal down all the way, makes sounds like the approach of a whale in the ocean.
I’m afraid that the crescendo “approach” was a little too much like Jaws (“Hey! Look out for the humpback!!”), and by the time the cello enters, this is onomatopoeia gone wild. With the sound of the whale at the top register of the cello, with the sound of the waves on the piano, and with the flute adding atmosphere, I wanted Richard Attenborough to start narrating the breeding habits of a good cetacean.
I don’t mean to belittle Mr. Crumb, who is a sensitive and brilliant technician and poet. But whale sounds were more realistic (because they were real) in Alan Hovhannes’s And God Created Great Whales. And to those of us who have followed whales in various oceans…..well, nothing beats the real thing.
CODA: The work after the intermission was Dvorák’s Second Piano Quintet, which I am certain would have been played well by these musicians. But five feet away, Mitsuko Uchida was giving a solo recital, so I sadly departed, with results to be seen in the adjoining review.