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Curtain Call: Artist and Composer Inspired by Juilliard

Those who hurry through Juilliard’s lobby may not notice its newest addition, a pink ripplefold curtain approximately 25 feet long, printed with groups of upward-sprawling black squiggle lines. The piece, a new work by the celebrated artist Matthew Brannon, occupies the wall leading to the elevators and is accompanied by a phrase in metallic lettering mounted on a wood panel reading, “Last in the Elevator First Out.” This phrase seems to blend into the wall, almost undetectable as part of the installation. 

Composition student Evan Fein, left, wrote a piece in response to an art installation by Matthew Brannon, right. Both works were commissioned by Juilliard.

(Photo by Chris Downes)

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At the work’s unveiling on September 29, the artist’s gallerist, Friedrich Petzel, gestured toward the text as he commented that the piece “looks as if it has always been here.” In fact, only those who take the time to reflect upon the text are likely to notice its playful wording and relation to the curtain beside it. 

The work, titled Lobby (1), was commissioned by the School and by Juilliard board member Dr. Bernard T. Ferrari and his wife, Linda. It is the first commissioned art installation at Juilliard since its move to Lincoln Center in 1969, created to celebrate the recent completion of Juilliard’s three-year renovation and expansion.

Inspired by the artistic competitions that took place during the Italian Renaissance and featured such masters as Donatello and Brunelleschi, Ferrari, in partnership with Juilliard, decided to stage something not wholly different from those historical events. He invited five emerging contemporary artists to submit ideas for a work to occupy the June Noble Larkin Lobby. From these entries, a panel of art experts helped select Brannon’s proposal, designed to complement Juilliard’s creative spirit and enhance the transitional space the lobby provides. The work is now part of Juilliard’s permanent art collection.

The work’s unveiling was accompanied by the premiere of doctoral student Evan Fein’s composition You Can Get There From Here, a response to Brannon’s vision. A buoyant, mercurial work for brass quintet evoking the sometimes frenetic, sometimes serene world inside Juilliard’s walls, You Can Get There From Here was commissioned by Juilliard and performed in front of Brannon’s work by the Puff Quintet, whose members include students Sydney Braunfeld (horn), Jennifer Christen (oboe), Emi Ferguson (flute), Benjamin Moermond (bassoon), and Xiang-yu Zhou (clarinet).

The composition’s joyful character melded well with Brannon’s new piece. The artist, who is known for his quirky yet effective use of image and text, tends to lull viewers into visual comfort while employing words as a means to provoke or surprise. Lobby (1) achieves Brannon’s hallmark qualities while exuding a lightheartedness not always apparent in his work. 

“Usually there are a lot of things there to camouflage a darker content,” Brannon said in a recent interview, speaking of his work as a whole. But in the case of the Juilliard installation, he has taken a different approach. Brannon said he hopes students will interpret his words as an invitation to reflect upon the nature of competition—to take a deep breath and realize that, in terms of what matters most, “sometimes it’s not always first place.” With Lobby (1) he embraces a sense of optimism. “I hope that it’s a very supportive and encouraging artwork,” he said. “It’s probably not typical of what I tend to make.”

This aspect of reassurance plays into Brannon’s vision of the piece as an emblem of smooth transition from the buzzing world of Manhattan into the creative sanctuary of Juilliard, and it was this concept that Fein chose to expand on.  

After visiting Brannon’s studio and learning about his plans for the installation, Fein began work on his composition. He chose the woodwind quintet because, he said, it is the “least homogenous in sound” and wove several phrases from Mozart’s Overture to The Marriage of Figaro into his composition, reinterpreting Mozart’s motifs as he saw fit. 

For Fein, the overture seems to capture the physical form of Brannon’s work. “When I listen to it,” he said, “I feel the same sense of excitement and optimism, and there’s a sense that the curtain just wants to rise—it’s overflowing with its own energy, and that’s the same sort of energy that I was hoping to create with this piece.” 

The layers of frenzy and calm in Fein’s piece reflect not only his sense of day-to-day life within Juilliard’s walls, but also his experience with the building’s reconstruction process. Fein, who arrived at Juilliard in September 2007, in the midst of construction, referred to his early experience of the Juilliard building as a “modern-day Brigadoon.” He noted, “My relief that the architect’s vision for Juilliard has finally come into fruition, and we don’t constantly have to be wondering where the next wall is going to appear—that I think is reflected in [my] piece. And in the title as well.”

Lobby (1) will be on display in the lobby for the remainder of the school year, and You Can Get There From Here will be performed again as part of the “Composition Concert” on November 30. Fittingly, the performance will take place just beyond the lobby in Paul Hall, where Brannon’s work can be seen reflecting off the glass entryway.

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