Inside Juilliard’s Paul Hall, a splendid spectacle of geometric juxtaposition greets the eyes. The wood-paneled interior is a busy mishmash of thin vertical rectangles and squares of varying sizes, whose right angles are further contrasted by a row of glossy spherical lights on each wall. Perhaps most eye-catching are the hall’s sharply protruding organ pipes, artfully arranged at varying angles across the stage.
But organ music was the last thing on the minds of Tuesday night’s concertgoers. Rather, they filled the hall’s red upholstered seats in eager anticipation of Ensemble ACJW’s performance of works by Vivaldi, Prokofiev, Lang and Reich. And what at first seemed an anomalous compositional grouping proved to be a masterfully curated and flawlessly performed program.
Starting the evening was Vivaldi’s Concerto in C major for two trumpets, strings and continuo, RV 537, which featured trumpeters Caleb Hudson and Thomas Bergeron. The shrill timbre of the piccolo trumpets on which Hudson and Bergeron performed allowed the performers to capture the essence of the Baroque instruments for which the music was originally composed. A valveless instrument confined to the natural harmonic series, the Baroque trumpet was incapable of producing many of the beautifully ornamented figures that Hudson and Bergeron improvised throughout the short duration of the composition.
The concerto’s opening Allegro movement invited all performers to show off the high virtuosity of Vivaldi’s arrangement. Hudson and Bergeron wove in and out of quick unison lines with utmost skill and dexterity, while the strings and harpsichord accompanied them with beautifully swelling phrases, which captured the movement’s jubilant character. A brief Largo followed, allowing the brass players a moment to catch their breath as harpsichordist Tyler Wottrich produced elegant right-hand figures, before all instrumentalists rejoined him for the final declarative Allegro.
Following Vivaldi, the program made a quick jump to the early 20th century with Prokofiev’s 1924 Quintet in G minor, Op. 39. The six-movement composition for oboe, clarinet, violin, viola and double bass borrows music from Prokofiev’s ballet Trapeze, which he was commissioned to write not long after his move to Paris in 1920.
The quintet exhibits a vivacious amalgamation of textures and timbres between the strings and the woodwinds, and the vibrant interplay between the instrumental lines clearly highlights Prokofiev’s keen interest in exploring and expanding instrumental possibilities. With pulsating drones, tremolo on the bridge of the instrument (sul ponticello), temporarily muted violin and viola and dissonant melodic lines, the strings and the woodwinds together produced an effect reminiscent of eerie circus music. But it was violinist Michelle Ross who took the spotlight with delicate swells, poignant pizzicato and sighing glissando, demanding quick shifts up and down the fingerboard, which she executed with incredible precision and utmost virtuosity.
After a brief intermission, the program continued with a performance of David Lang’s involuntary. Commissioned to write a fanfare for the opening of The DiMenna Center for Classical Music in 2011, Lang opted for a less traditional fanfare arrangement featuring two piccolos, two trumpets, and percussion.
The composition highlights Lang’s post-minimalistic style, with a heavy and steady military-like pulse in the percussion accompanied by shrill, boisterous arpeggiations in the piccolos and trumpets. The incessant arpeggios are layered so strategically, and were articulated by the performers so masterfully, that together they produced a contour and sonority that felt far more complex than one might expect from steady streams of ascending thirds. Only when the instrumental layers were peeled away, beginning with a long period of rest for the snare drum and then the trumpets, could the listener better hear the repetitious arpeggios that constitute the individual melodic lines.
It was a mesmerizing rendition of Steve Reich’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Double Sextet for flute, clarinet, violin, cello, vibraphone, and piano that concluded the evening’s program. Playing along with the original recording by eighth blackbird, who premièred the piece in 2008, the six live instrumentalists from Ensemble ACJW were hooked up to in-ear monitors as they worked adeptly through the composition’s mixed meter, tone clusters, and layered dissonances. Pianist Alexandria Le and percussionist Ian Sullivan provided a strong and steady backbone in the rhythm section, on top of which the winds and strings cleanly and precisely layered dissonant harmonies that sent shivers down my spine. The overall effect of the piece’s repetitious nature and slow development was trance-inducing, casting a spell over the audience until an eruption of cheers and roaring applause brought everyone back to reality.