Ensemble ACJW/David Robertson at Zankel Hall – Wagner, Ligeti & Haydn – Moran Katz plays John Adams’s Gnarly Buttons

Siegfried Idyll
Chamber Concerto
John Adams
Gnarly Buttons
Symphony No.8 in G (Le soir)

Moran Katz (clarinet)

Ensemble ACJWDavid Robertson

Reviewed by: Gene Gaudette

Reviewed: 25 March, 2012
Venue: Zankel Hall at Carnegie Hall, New York City

Ensemble ACJW, the performing branch of the innovative educational program run by Carnegie Hall, Weill Music Institute, Juilliard School and New York City Department of Education, has delivered some very interesting concerts. David Robertson led this impressive group of graduate-level musicians.

David Robertson. Photograph: Michael TammaroWagner’s Siegfried Idyll, a Christmas Day 1870 gift for his wife Cosima, was sunny and engaging. Robertson cultivated judicious use of portamento, exuberant and characterful solo lines, and strong individual color reminiscent of the chamber music by Berg and Schoenberg, both of whom found Wagner’s influence profound. This was quite the opposite of restrained and reverential performances of this work, and Robertson’s approach was unexpectedly persuasive.

György Ligeti’s Chamber Concerto (1970, for 13 instruments) is a piece with one foot in the composer’s earlier style dominated by tone-clusters and long textural expanses, and the other in gestures that would dominate his music for the next two decades: strongly colored melody, minimalist ostinato, and propulsive moto perpetuo. It is here that Ligeti’s ‘clocks and clouds’ (as he referred to them later) first collide. While I would have hoped for somewhat wider dynamics, especially in the quieter material, the players brought to this enormously challenging work impressive precision, Technicolor contrasts, nuanced playing, and amazingly assured virtuosity in the rapid-fire passages. Especially impressive was the third movement, bringing just the right touch of manic energy to this ‘movimento preciso e meccanico’.

John Adams’s concerto for clarinet, Gnarly Buttons, is scored for small orchestra, including banjo, mandolin, guitar, and an electronic keyboard which also elicits sampled sounds – notably an improbable cow moo that never fails to get your attention. The solo part is formidably challenging. Moran Katz, whose timbre is refreshingly brighter than most clarinetists, navigated the difficult shifts of register with astonishing evenness of tone, and brought greater variety – cheeky, songlike, energetic and doleful – than I have previously heard in this work. Robertson and the ACJW players provided strong support until the cows came home.

It would be churlish to criticize the handful of technical glitches in Haydn’s ‘Le soir’ Symphony, as I was completely won over by the musicians’ unflagging energy and charming playing (not least in the double bass solos). Robertson kept vibrato to a minimum and the tempos sprightly – particularly in the finale, filigree passages brought off with rhythmic precision and palpable merriment.

This was one of the best concerts I’ve attended in recent years with David Robertson on the podium. There was not a dull moment: the music and music-making was full of fascination from the down-beat of the Wagner to the last note of the Haydn.

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