Monday, January 30, 2006

Juilliard School's Annual Focus! Festival

The Juilliard Focus (Loud and Clear): 'Let's Hear It for the New'

By Jeremy Eichler - January 30, 2006
From the New York Times

A typical New York concert might offer a single new work quickly chased by a Beethoven symphony or a Romantic violin concerto. The Juilliard School's annual Focus! festival, which opened Friday night at the Peter Jay Sharp Theater, takes a less cautious, more concentrated approach: a full week of concerts packed with nothing but contemporary fare.
Its director, Joel Sachs, is a longtime presence on the new music scene, a diminutive man with open ears and a deep commitment to music of the moment. Subtitled "New and Now," this year's Focus! festival spans six programs filled entirely with works composed in 2005. It doesn't get much more contemporary than that, nor, in this case, more international. The programs form a kind of burbling polyglot conversation among composers from Japan, China, the Netherlands, Puerto Rico, Uzbekistan, Indonesia, Argentina, Azerbaijan, New Zealand and New Jersey. There are plenty of the usual suspects represented but also at least one composer whose music has never been performed in the United States.

And lest anyone fear that the forces of globalization are creating some kind of musical Esperanto, the four works in Friday night's concert could hardly have been more different, beginning with the Japanese composer Akira Nishimura's artfully tangled Chamber Symphony No. 3, "Metamorphosis." As the title suggests, Mr. Nishimura's work is a study in gradual free-form transformation, a process he approached through a willful disunity of materials, a carefully plotted chaos. Anxious string tremolos coalesce around a hushed downward slide; short proto-melodies gesture toward bolder statements only to recede quickly into a subterranean ferment.
Guus Janssen's Concerto for Three Clarinets and Ensemble was a sharp contrast, with its emphasis on full-frontal virtuosity. The able student soloists — Vasko Dukovski, Moran Katz and Ismail Lumanovski — played fast riffs spiced with klezmer and Balkan influences, but their lines, partly improvised, did not always sit comfortably with the orchestral accompaniment. Mr. Janssen is himself an improvising pianist, and his work sought to bridge the disparate kingdoms of jazz and strictly notated classical music. At times, however, the work seemed to reinforce their distance.
The Chinese composer Jia Daqun showed a delicate sense of line and a fine ear for orchestral timbre in "Three Images From Wash Painting." But the evening's most vivid statement came from Roberto Sierra's "Bongo+," one of six works that Juilliard has commissioned for the festival as part of the school's centenary celebration. Mr. Sierra, a Puerto Rican composer who studied with the impish modernist master Gyorgy Ligeti, achieves a seamless link between the traditional orchestra and a battery of Afro-Caribbean percussion instruments, including bongos, congas, maracas and guiros, complemented by xylophone and marimba. The brilliant solo part was divided between two talented Juilliard percussion students, Jacob Nissly and Eric Roberts, who along with the New Juilliard Ensemble gave it an electric performance.

The parade of new work continues tonight with music by Augusta Read Thomas, Derek Bermel, Ursula Mamlok and Mario Davidovsky. Tomorrow features the Australian composer Matthew Hindson's "Didjeridubluegrass"; Wednesday brings "Court Studies" from Thomas Adès's recent opera "The Tempest" and the Fifth String Quartet of Donald Martino, who died last month. Thursday features "Honk" by Frederic Rzewski, and on and on. Don't expect stylistic or thematic connections; Mr. Sachs only promises the new.

The Juilliard School's Focus! festival runs through Friday.

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