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N.J.E. Performs a Program of Premieres

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The concept of a new music concert has different interpretations. Some people consider anything after Debussy to be new! I doubt that anyone will doubt the newness of the works to be heard at the April 29 New Juilliard Ensemble concert. In all, four of the five compositions will have their world premieres. The fifth, completed in the distant past (2002), will have its Western Hemisphere premiere.

Paul Chihara

A work by Paul Chihara will be performed.

(Photo by Photo by Kathe Osborne)

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Two pieces were composed by Juilliard composition students selected through N.J.E.’s annual audition. This season they are Chris Kapica, who received his master’s degree in May 2009—graduating students are eligible—and David Fulmer, who is in the doctoral program. Chris, who describes himself as “23 going on 5,” is also a performer, an accomplished electric bassist, guitarist, bass clarinetist, and vocalist who plays with many jazz and pop groups. In an autobiographical note in the program, he bares his soul: “I unintentionally quote the Ninja Turtles in socially compromising situations, pray that the F.D.A. makes Dunkaroos part of the food pyramid, and live my life by such childhood credos as ‘finders, keepers; losers, weepers’ and ‘he who smelt it dealt it.’ What better way to show that side of me than through a 15-minute mini-musical about kindergartners putting on their school play? Seeing as this is my first attempt at an orchestra piece, I thought it too lofty a task to make a gravely serious, Beethovenian gesture; thus, Juice Box Hero was born.” For the proper gravitas of performance we shall have singers John Brancy, Tobias Greenhalgh, Drew Seigla, and Lilla Heinrich, whom Chris thanks “for their hard work and hilarity.” Juice Box Hero is not an appropriate companion piece to Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder.

David Fulmer’s name is popping up increasingly as a violinist. I fondly remember asking him to be the soloist in Brian Ferneyhough’s ferociously difficult mini-concerto Terrain for an N.J.E. concert at the Lincoln Center Festival in 2005. I didn’t actually expect him to defer answering until he looked at it, and he didn’t. He instantly committed himself. (Feryneyhough was extremely happy with his performance.) David should not, however, be pigeonholed as a specialist. A passionate chamber music player, he habitually participates in the thematic interchange by leaning forward and virtually handing his tune to another performer. Nevertheless, the violin is only part of his life. He received a master’s from the School with a double major in composition and violin, and is now a doctoral composition student—he writes with the same fervor with which he plays. I was very happy when he politely asked if he might make his new piece a violin concerto for himself. 

Paul Chihara, a “classical” composer, is also active in film and television, and directs U.C.L.A.’s new Visual Media Program (film music). His music often displays his Asian roots. “My parents were born in a small rice-farming village in southern Japan called Wakayama,” he wrote in a recent biography that he provided for the program. “They migrated to Seattle, Wash., in 1926, and I was born in 1938, the last of four children. Our little community of Japanese Americans spoke Japanese at home with our parents, and English at school outside the home. The Second World War created very intense cultural and social conflicts within our nisei (Japanese-American) community. The Chihara family was among the thousands of nisei interned during the war. My generation has always retained a closeness with Japanese culturally, and a great distance from it politically.” 

Chihara’s Japanese background often affects his music profoundly, and as a result has been the source of some amusement between us. Some years ago, Continuum, the professional ensemble that I co-direct with Cheryl Seltzer, commissioned a chamber work, requesting that it be extremely energetic. Instead it was gentle. He explained that his Japanese background often imparts to his music a quality of gentle floating. Having enjoyed N.J.E.’s performance of an earlier piece, he offered to write something for us just for the fun of it, this time making it really lively. This Chamber Symphony is a reworking of a piano quintet. In a program note, he wrote that adding winds and percussion allowed him to infuse the original neo-classic and minimalist style “with my beloved big band sound of Latin dance music and romance. So the resultant chamber symphony is a mix of what I love best: classical music and ’40s pop songs (in the style of ‘Bésame Mucho’). There is a Japanese children’s song in the second and third movements—‘Aka Tombo’ (Red Dragon Fly), which somehow marries quite naturally with all the other disparate musical ideas.”

I first learned about Jakhongir Shukurov from Dmitri Yanov-Yanovsky, one of the best-known composers of Central Asia. (N.J.E. premiered Yanov-Yanovsky’s Paths of Parables II, based on texts by Woody Allen, in September 2009.) Shukurov, born in 1981 in the beautiful ancient city Bukhara, studied composition with Yanov-Yanovsky’s father, Felix. Since then, Shukurov’s music has been performed at international festivals in Germany, Italy, Belgium, Austria, Finland, the United States, and Uzbekistan. An active conductor, he gave the first performances in Tashkent, Uzbekistan’s capital, of Gyorgy Ligeti’s Kammerkonzert, Sofia Gubaidulina’s Concordanza and Detto II, and Paul Hindemith’s Kammermusik No. 1. He sent me some music after we met him in Uzbekistan a few years ago, and I have conducted one piece three times, always noting the audience’s strong positive reaction. When I asked if he would like to compose a piece for N.J.E., he responded enthusiastically and originally planned to have it done in time for the September concert, which would have given that program two utterly different compositions by composers from a country that many Americans have never heard of. However, he needed more time. He calls his piece In Distance, to suggest the different possibilities of perceiving an object according to the distance from which we observe it. In a program note, he wrote, “It is more or less close to the idea of the Japanese stone garden in which a permanent combination of ingredients creates different impressions, depending on the angle of view.” 

The remaining piece on the program is Martin Matalon’s Trame IV, for piano and 11 players. I have known Martin since he was a student at Juilliard—he received his master’s in 1988. Although he settled in Paris we have stayed in touch over the years, and I had the pleasure of conducting his music. I was therefore very pleased when he inquired whether N.J.E. would like to record Trame IV with his old friend, Juilliard alumna Elena Klionsky, as soloist. Normally I prefer that soloists be current students, but it made sense to combine the recording and a performance. Of course, studio recording is extremely expensive and would have put a strain on the funder. Accordingly, since Juilliard’s recording studio does an excellent job in the Peter Jay Sharp Theater, it was decided to go for a live-performance recording. Such things are always chancy, but better to risk it than be unable to give him the opportunity to make the piece available. He says that the generic name of his Trame series is inspired by a poem of Jorge Luis Borges, which explores the synchrony existing among all the elements that constitute “universal history.”

While no one concert can pretend to represent the spectrum of music even in a single community, the April 29 N.J.E. concert should give the audience a general sense of how a group of composers of three generations sees music today.

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