Ensemble ACJW/Mälkki – Boulez, Birtwistle, Stravinsky & Adès

Dérive 1
Secret Theatre
Concerto in E flat for Chamber Orchestra (Dumbarton Oaks)
Living Toys

Ensemble ACJW
Susanna Mälkki

Reviewed by: Gene Gaudette

Reviewed: 21 March, 2009
Venue: Zankel Hall at Carnegie Hall, New York City

Susanna Mälkki. ©Tanja AholaSusanna Mälkki has received ever-increasing attention following her appointment as music director of Ensemble InterContemporain in 2006. Here she was leading Ensemble ACJW in a demanding program of three recent works and a neo-baroque work by Igor Stravinsky. The 32-member ensemble focuses on contemporary music for small- and medium-sized instrumental configurations and is operated in a partnership between the Juilliard School, Carnegie Hall, the Weill Music Institute, and New York City’s Department of Education.

The best music-making was to be heard in the last work on the program, Thomas Adès’s Living Toys. The superb young players cut loose in the assertive, sometimes exuberant and occasionally manic gestures and waves of ensemble color and rhythm in a work that ‘mashes up’ comic and heroic gestures with a not-so-naive nudge and a wink. Mälkki managed to rein in the harshness that sometimes hampers Adès’s fetish for music written in instruments’ highest ranges and elicit some amazingly beautiful tone colors – and the intonation in the stratospheric flourishes was consistently solid and secure. Mälkki is a close artistic collaborator with Adès, and she seemed a bit more animated and engaged in her conducting than in the earlier works, but it was also obvious that the players have more than a passing affinity for this music.

Which makes it all the more of a pity that the first three works on the program didn’t come close to rising anywhere to the level of the Adès. Pierre Boulez’s Dérive 1 lacked the requisite shimmering tone-colors and dynamic depth that propel the music’s morphing S-A-C-H-E-R monody and generate sonorities infused with timbral variety, and ensemble balance left much to be desired, with the violin and cello overwhelmed by the winds and piano.

Harrison Birtwistle’s Secret Theatre is among the composer’s most frequently performed works – a half-hour-long, near-unrelenting torrent of dense music which pits a constantly shifting ensemble of up to five ‘cantus’ instruments against the main ensemble. Secret Theatre has a great deal in common with recent ensemble works by Wolfgang Rihm. Ensemble ACJW played with enormous rhythmic impetus, but the more sustained material failed to provide any real respite from the work’s incessantly busy nature. Balances were better but still favored instruments at the back of the stage. The first work on the program’s second half, Stravinsky’s ‘Dumbarton Oaks’ Concerto fared better, and was played with technical flair. On the other hand, the musical approach was poker-faced to the point of sterility, although Mälkki did utilize phrasing and articulation that complemented quite effectively the work’s proto-Vivaldian structure.

Despite my disappointment in the uneven interpretative quality – and largely color-less first half – the young players of Ensemble ACJW were individually quite impressive and extremely well-prepared for this very demanding repertoire. I strongly recommend you give Ensemble ACJW a listen if you enjoy cutting-edge contemporary music.

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