Despite a winter storm, a sizeable crowd turned out to hear Ensemble ACJW this Saturday night at Zankel Hall. The ensemble was led with precision and passion by Maestro David Robertson, and guided in bold strokes of character by soprano Dawn Upshaw. ACJW’s performances, particularly of music by Luciano Berio and Steve Reich, were admirable, although their Bartók left something to be desired.

Ensemble ACJW’s members are fellows and alumni of the Academy, a professional training institute led in partnership by Carnegie Hall, the Juilliard School, the Weill Music Institute, and the New York City Department of Education. When not otherwise engaged with teaching and outreach efforts, professional development activities, and performances in unconventional spaces, these young musicians come together, as they did tonight, for brilliantly programmed events at more standard midtown venues.

A well-designed program helped make this evening a successful one. Berio’s Folk Songs, the composer’s settings for soprano of “folk” texts both authentic and ersatz, and set to accompaniment by flute, clarinet, viola, cello, harp and percussion, was a lovely opener. City Life, a 1995 work by Steve Reich, incorporated vernacular speech as well, although sampled and dissected by synthesizers rather than sung. The lone work on the second half, Bartók’s iconic Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, similarly echoed the Berio in that both composers displayed an interest in popular and folk idioms, with Bartók devoting a great deal of energy to transcribing peasant songs throughout eastern Europe.

The dry acoustics of Zankel Hall weren’t doing the artists any favors, but Ms Upshaw seemed unfazed in a convivial and persuasive account of the Berio Folk Songs. (It’s worth mentioning here that, in addition to a easy-to-extract set of printed texts, the program contained excellent notes written by ACJW percussionist Ian Sullivan.) The 20-minute set, performed without pause, has the feel of a polyglot rhapsody. Maestro Robertson paced the transitions between songs perfectly, and Ms Upshaw sounded at home in the songs’ daunting texts. The six languages Berio uses include such oddities in the vocal literature as Armenian, Occitan, and Azerbaijani. Ms Upshaw was at her best when she eschewed nuance and lent an easy warmth to songs like the Armenian Loosin yelav. Her keen feel for peasant vulgarity and humor enlivened the Sicilian A la femminisca and sharpened the irony of Malurous qu’o uno fenno, whose text mocks the notion of marital bliss. Maestro Robertson, having dispensed with a baton for the first half of the concert, elicited sensitivity, precision and charm from his players.

Only incorporating the recorded sound of snow shovels scraping at asphalt would have made Reich’s City Life a more perfect fit on this program. Its sampled sirens and construction noises (used by Reich to depict a New York street), plus the soft rumbling of the actual subway (from which the subterranean Zankel Hall is almost perfectly insulated), neatly mirrored the cacophony outside on this messy winter evening. City Life showed off the strengths of Ensemble ACJW, whose technical polish was evident in this difficult score. Unlike works like Reich’s Different Trains – in which a string quartet plays along with an unchanging recorded tape – City Life requires the samples to be manipulated live on synthesizers. This adds an extra element of precision to a good performance, and Ensemble ACJW were up to the challenge. Minimalist works performed live tend to be marathons of concentration, and Mr Robertson and his musicians grew stronger as they progressed through this work. The final movement’s structure was realized perfectly; a siren near the end was heard as a clear inversion, in both pitch and implied rhythm, of the recorded heartbeat heard throughout most of the movement.

After Ensemble ACJW had tackled with aplomb the coloristic challenges of the Folk Songs and the technical elements of City Life, it was a bit of a disappointment that they weren’t able to marry technique and artistry in service of a bigger musical statement in the Bartók. The Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta contained some great moments and fine individual playing, but the violins struggled at achieving unity, and the quiet intensity this piece really needs was missing. Soft passages lost tension, and the “night music” of the third movement – identical in effect to the movement of that title from Bartók’s piano suite Out of Doors – was rendered too literally, and was thus insufficiently creepy. While this was a solid enough performance for a young group, I wasn’t transported, and my thoughts turned too early to the prospect of trudging back to the train through snow and slush.

***11