From Brahms to a Saariaho premiere, Ensemble Connect offers versatile and luminous advocacy

Ensemble Connect performed the world premiere of Kaija Saariaho Semafor Monday night at Carnegie Hall. Photo: Fadi Kheir

Ensemble Connect returned to Weil Recital Hall with a chamber music program equally divided between romantic and contemporary. The Schumanns and Brahms were charming and skilfully performed, but the highlight was the world premiere of Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho. Semaforco-commissioned by Carnegie Hall and the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival.

Launched in 2007, Ensemble Connect was conceived by Carnegie Hall Executive and Artistic Director Clive Gillinson. Based at Carnegie Hall, the two-year graduate program is a partnership with The Juilliard School and the New York City Department of Education. Beyond the performance, participants partner with instrumental teachers in New York schools to inspire and guide budding young musicians, in addition to sharing their artistry.

Acclaimed as one of the world’s greatest living composers, Saariaho is the best-known exponent of spectralism, which takes the material attributes of sound as the starting point for composition. His singular style is characterized by rich polyphonic textures often created by combining live and electronic music. She has the distinction of being the second female composer to have had an opera, Loin’s Love, staged at the Metropolitan Opera in 2016. (The premiere was Ethel Smyth with The Wald in 1903.)

Introducing the work, flautist Amir Farsi said that Semafor was Saariaho’s last composition before a sabbatical, planned before the pandemic. Players had a unique coaching session with her via Zoom, in which she described the job as her attempt to capture the sounds of a bustling city. Written for woodwinds, strings, piano and celesta, Semafor is exactly as Farsi described it to the audience: tumultuous and colorful.

Saariaho writes that the title of the work refers to the late Finnish artist Ernst Mether-Bergström and his colorful and playful work. Semafor sculptures. Musically, Saariaho’s inspiration was what she calls, “obsessive octaves” in her orchestral work. Seen. Normally octaves are a way to release harmonic tension in one’s work, but in Semaforthey do the exact opposite.

One could easily imagine being a traffic cop at a busy Manhattan intersection, directing rush hour traffic while listening Semafor, but just as willingly a cyclist rushing through city traffic. Saariaho vividly described the stops and starts of the flow of traffic with sudden changes in mood and pace. One moment there is a musical frenzy with eerie sounds coming from the set, the following a period of hypnotic rest. In the middle of the work, it is the woodwinds against the strings in a musical fight before uniting in a calmer and more harmonic sound flow. A beautiful bassoon solo, performed by Nik Hooks, leads to the luminous and soft conclusion of the piece.

Hooks was also Wynton Marsalis’ soloist Meelaan, a play on the name of the famous bassoonist Milan Turkovic for whom it was composed. Written for bassoon and string quartet, Meeelaan had its first performance in Buenos Aires in 2000 and in New York the following year. Introducing the work, Hooks said the five musicians envisioned the work as depicting the ebb and flow in the relationship of two longtime friends. His words provided the framework for the three-movement work with its thrilling combination of blues, tango and bebop.

Unlike his early works for viola and piano, MarchenbilderSchumann did not specify which fairy tales inspired his trio for clarinet, viola and piano titled Märchenerzählungen. Composed in 1853, it is one of the composer’s last compositions, before his final descent into madness and eventual death the following year. This enchanting performance alternated between haunting elegance, mystery and drama, before culminating in a beautiful exchange in the last movement between violist Halam Kim and clarinetist Yasmina Spiegelberg.

Brahms was a horn player in his youth, having received instruction from his father. Young Brahms was gifted enough to play the first horn in the Detmold orchestra. Composed in 1865, the Trio in E-flat major for violin, horn and piano is steeped in nostalgia, not only as a musical reminiscence of his childhood, but also to commemorate the death of the composer’s mother earlier that year.

Brahms had a preference for the natural horn and composed the trio specifically for it, although he permitted the use of the valve horn, the latter being played by Cort Roberts in this rendition. Accompanied by violinist Stephanie Zyzak, the trio’s poignant third movement was an exquisite melodic dialogue between violin and horn.

Pianist Joanne Kang, though often unseen for most of the evening, was a crucial part throughout, playing keyboards in the Schumanns, Saariaho and Brahms that really made this concert pop.

Ensemble Connect returns to Carnegie Hall on May 2 with a concert of new music by American composers.

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