McPhee: Balinese Ceremonial Music
Steve Reich: Quartet
Julia Wolfe: On Seven-Star-Shoes
John Adams: Chamber Symphony
Although it is a field too often desperately stuck in the past, classical music nevertheless can legitimately claim a lot of noteworthy contemporary talents in terms of composers and musicians. While my forays into this unknown territory has had its fair share of hits and misses, I am not giving up, and neither is Carnegie Hall. There are simply too many potentially exciting things happening out there not to give them a try.
That’s why on Tuesday night I found myself in Carnegie Hall’s impossibly elegant Weill concert hall, where I hadn’t been in years, for Ensemble Connect, an eclectic group of la crème de la crème of young musicians carefully selected throughout the United States to go through an arduous but no doubt rewarding two-year fellowship program sponsored by Carnegie Hall. And I was about to enjoy the fruit of their labor with a minimalism-centered program featuring iconic figures such as Steven Reich and John Adams, and less well-known but still highly respected artists such as Colin McPhee and Julia Wolfe.
The first piece of the program was also the oldest and had a significant historic value since Canadian composer Colin McPhee was the first composer to take a profound interest in the gamelan music of Bali, where he lived for several years in the 1940s, and manage to incorporate it into Western works. His bold endeavor paid off handsomely for us on Wednesday evening with his Balinese Ceremonial Music for two pianos, which quickly filled the small space with the sparseness and spellbinding quality of minimalism, as well as a refreshing touch of exoticism.
The fact that the piano belongs to the percussion instrument category after all was even more brought to light in the second piece, Steve Reich’s Quartet, whose constantly shifting, dauntingly intricate patterns were expertly navigated by two pianists and two percussionists in impressive unison. The unusually combination of sounds made for truly spellbinding music, whether slightly jazzy to subtly introvert, and a truly virtuosic performance.
Inspired by bohemian German-Jewish writer Else Lasker-Schüler, Julia Wolfe’s On Seven-Star-Shoes was a restless six-minute song performed by five woodwind players that went by flying in a most peculiar way and was over before we knew it.
Last, but definitely not least, John Adams’ Chamber Symphony promised just over 20 chaotic-in-an-intriguing-way minutes that the composer came up with while simultaneously studying Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony and hearing the cartoons his son was watching next door. Democratically making use of the same 15 single instruments, including one synthesizer, as the ones in Schoenberg’s composition, the end result turned out to be a wildly eclectic, boldly acrobatic and relentlessly driven ride. On Tuesday night, the fearless youngsters of Ensemble Connect gave it a most dynamite reading , which did not shy from its weirdness and playfulness, and peaked for me during the dynamic duo between violin and percussion, the strings eventually winning with a fierce cadenza.