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N.J.E. Brings 4 Premieres to the Sharp Theater

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The New Juilliard Ensemble opened its 19th season on July 10 with the first of its two concerts in MoMA’s Summergarden series, the theme of which was Music New to New York. The program comprised works by Keeril Makan (M.I.T. faculty), Marta Ptaszynska (a Polish-born composer and percussion virtuoso who teaches at the University of Chicago), London’s Richard Causton, and Evening Division faculty member Conrad Cummings. Since the concert is held outdoors, in the museum’s sculpture garden, the challenge is to design varied programs in which nothing is predominantly quiet. While many people assume that traffic is the worst saboteur of Summergarden, Sunday nights in July are generally remarkably quiet. (Of course, even a single motorcycle or noisy truck can wreck the mood.) Greater mood dis-enhancers are the gigantic air-conditioning systems of neighboring buildings and the thousands of sparrows who live in the garden and chirp away merrily as the light begins to dim, as it did during the first half of the program. Then there is the question of audiences: how many people will turn out for new music on a summer Sunday night? The answer is—a lot! As usual, we were quite full, with about 750 people—a heartwarming sight for any composer. Cummings expressed a little surprise that I was interested in his “I Wish They All Could Be ...”, a wonderfully quirky retro reflection on the Beach Boys. It was obvious to me, however, that it was the perfect ending to a concert on a beautiful summer night.

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N.J.E.’s second MoMA concert, on July 24, comprised string quartets by Carson Cooman (of Cambridge, Mass.), Judith Lang Zaimont (who has taught at many important American universities and conservatories), Jiri Kaberabek (who is from the Czech Republic), and Louis Andriessen (who’s from the Netherlands and is one of Europe’s most celebrated composers). While many younger composers have excellent pieces that have not been played in New York, it is much more difficult to find music by more senior figures, such as Zaimont and Andriessen. I was therefore delighted they sent quartets that could be included under our theme. We also were lucky with the weather. Until mid-afternoon, we debated whether to move the concert indoors because rain was forecast, but the musicians were eager to play outdoors, and in the end, the sky cleared, we drew about 700, and we had a breeze that felt wonderful to everyone except the musicians, who had to battle with pages that turned when they should not have done. 

For N.J.E.’s first concert of the school year, which takes place in Peter Jay Sharp Theater on September 24, there are two world premieres—Jingjing Luo’s Tsao Shu (“Grass Script”), with a solo pianist who uses only extended techniques; and Carman Moore’s Concerto for Ornette. I was intrigued when Moore, a star of New York’s improvisational world and an N.J.E. fan, offered me the world premiere of this work for improvising alto saxophonist and large orchestra, with the world-famous Ornette Coleman—the inventor of avant-garde jazz—as soloist. Having thoroughly enjoyed working with Coleman about a decade ago, I jumped at the opportunity provided Moore felt he could make a version for chamber orchestra, which he promptly did. Unfortunately, we later learned that Coleman, a spry 81-year-old, is now playing infrequently, and Denardo Coleman, his son, drummer, and manager, felt we should not oblige him to perform. Instead, we will dedicate the premiere to Coleman, and Jazz Studies artistic director Carl Allen enthusiastically recommended master’s student Morgan Jones as the soloist. Morgan was extremely excited as Ornette Coleman is his hero!

The September 24 program also has Western Hemisphere premieres of pieces by two extraordinary Europeans, Danish composer Hans Abrahamsen (Wald, 2008-09) and Peter Maxwell Davies (De Assumptione Beatae Mariae Virginis, 2001). Longtime New York new-music lovers may remember performances of Abrahamsen’s music by Musical Elements, an ensemble led by Bob Beaser, who now heads Juilliard’s composition faculty. Regrettably, health and personal problems put Abrahamsen’s composing on pause for some time, but thanks in part to a wonderful remarriage and the birth of a lovely child, he is again working assiduously. Abrahamsen will come for the concert and present his music to Juilliard composition students the following Monday.

It was especially gratifying to receive a score of Davies’s piece and learn that it had never been done outside Europe. The timing was perfect: on November 20, Juilliard Opera will give the Western Hemisphere premiere of Davies’ full-length opera, Kommilitonen (which translates as “fellow students”), a co-commission of Juilliard and the Royal Academy of Music. We hope that the N.J.E. performance will pique New York’s curiosity about the opera.

 

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