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New Music at Merkin

Julliard plays Shostakovich
by Stephen Kaye
Fri Jan 27th, 2017

Mark Dancigers

Jan 27 - On Wednesday night we heard “Dreamfall,” a piece by Mark Dancigers, a contemporary composer, played as part of the Ecstatic Music Festival at Merkin Hall.  It is music of substance in three movements:  a structure where one instrument announces the theme and its variations—in this case the piano played by Michael Mizrahi (depicted in teaser photo); other instruments deal with it their own way, supplying tonal variety, adding layers, variations like jazz improvisations.  We heard changes in pace and dynamic changes, changes in texture.  There is no doubt that Dancigers has a sound that is suitable for his group, the NOW ensemble of five musicians.

The night before, we had heard the Julliard Orchestra, directed by Alan Gilbert, perfoprm Shotakovich’s Fourth Symphony, a vast panorama of sound in which I noticed similar structures and variations, with dramatic changes in tempo and dynamics.  The Julliard group had 36 violins, 12 cellos, 20 woodwinds, and a compliment of percussionists, timpani, harps, brass, etc.  They could make a deafening nose that filled the hall of the NY Philharmonic (once known as Avery Fisher Hall but now called David Geffen Hall). Shostakovich also has a particular sound, one suitable for a large orchestra. It was a stunning performance that was totally engaging.

Why do I throw these two different performances together in this one short review? Because Alex Ross says all music is just sound. Music is sound organized by composers.  The organizing principles of Shostakovich and Dancigers are similar. A lot of contemporary composers are too concerned with tonality—just one element of sound—and ignore the other elements.  I am happy to find contemporary composers who use a range of elements, who are conscious of rhythm, dynamics and textures, who can engage the various sound-making possibilities of the instruments in a coherent and hopefully pleasing way. 

The NOW ensemble’s second piece, “Simple Machine,” was by Ellis Ludwig-Leone, a young composer who composes for, and plays with, the band San Fermin but who also composes for ballet.  He wrote the piece for NOW and for this performance. He uses the particular sound of NOW: piano, clarinet, flute, double bass, and electric guitar, providing a short, elegant piece on the idea of machine.  The music revolves around the clarinet (Alicia Lee) that holds the primary line and sets the pace. The sounds are clear and clean, and the music enjoyable.

In second part of the Ecstatic concert eight members of San Fermin joined the five NOW players.  The first was composed by Dancigers, “Gulf,” the next four were by Ludwig-Leone.  “Gulf” was symphonic. There was a setting, carefully contrasted notes and tones, a driving force.  It developed but didn't stray far from the basic theme.  The four by Ludwig-Leone were in the Indie tradition with voice as the primary focus.  

Collaboration runs through the Ecstatic Music Festival said John Schafer, WNYC’s host of New Sounds Live and the MC for the series.  While the two groups have points of convergence, they have strived to perfect their own sounds.  I thought they sounded better apart than together.