From blips to bliss with ‘Ensemble Connect Up Close’ at Carnegie Hall

United StatesUnited States Various, ‘Ensemble Connect Up Close’: Ensemble Connect, Mia Bermudez, Michelle Di Muccio, Jalyn Gill, Erin Gonzales, Mariano Hurtado (dancers), Eduardo Vilaro (choreographer), Jackie Fox (lighting designer). Resnick Education Wing, Carnegie Hall, New York, 18.3.2024. (RP)

Joseph Jordan (oboe), Thapelo Masita (cello), Isabella Bignasca (viola) and Mika Sasaki (piano) © Chris Lee

Tania LeónAxon
Natalie Brown insomni/black (world premiere, commissioned by Carnegie Hall)
Viet CuongFine Lines
Nathalie JoachimI’m Right Here (world premiere, commissioned by Carnegie Hall)
Paquito D’Rivera – ‘Alborado y Son’; ‘Afro’; ‘Contradanza’ (Aires Tropicales)

Ensemble Connect plays the standard chamber music repertoire to well-nigh perfection. When it turns to music of living composers, as it did in ‘Ensemble Connect Up Close’, the result is a spell-binding potpourri of sounds, styles and emotions as well as movement.

The concert was curated by composer Tania León, who holds Carnegie Hall’s 2023–24 Debs Composer’s Chair. Since immigrating to America from Cuba in the late 1960s, León has been affiliated with institutions as diverse as the Dance Theatre of Harlem, Sonidos de las Américas and the New York Philharmonic. Her awards include the 2021 Pulitzer Prize in Music and being named a 2022 Kennedy Center honoree.

The first work on the program, León’s Axon (2002) for solo violin and interactive computer, was performed by Isabelle Ai Durrenberger. Axon, a real-time collaboration between the violin and computer-generated sounds, runs on the software MaxMSP, a visual programming language used for building audio applications where user interaction is needed.

Durrenberger dug into León’s angular, searing music, which was reprocessed and echoed by the computer. The sounds she produced ranged from piercing, sky-high harmonics to guttural utterances in the lower ranges of the instrument. An extended, cadenza-like section for the violin pulsated with the spirit of the Caribbean, before the piece ended on a sustained and shimmering high note.

Natalie Brown’s insomni/black (2024) was one of two pieces commissioned by Carnegie Hall that had their world premieres here. Brown considers herself to be a storyteller, whether it is through playwriting, composing, directing, producing or performing. In her work, she seeks to amplify voices historically excluded from western narratives, and to use the arts as a means for social change. Scored for violin, cello, oboe and piano, insomni/black captures the restlessness of a sleepless night with musical jabs evoking the anxieties that keep us from sleeping. The turbulence, however, gives way to soothing melodies that bring relief and a smile to the face.

Viet Cuong’s music has been performed on six continents by the New York Philharmonic, Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, Sō Percussion, Atlanta Symphony and most of the US military bands. Composed in 2019, Fine Lines for flute, clarinet, violin, cello and piano was inspired by six of Picasso’s line drawings, and it reflects the composer’s interest in the visual arts.

Anjali Shinde (flute) and Joseph Jordan (cor anglais) © Chris Lee

The five players captured Cuong’s joy in chasing the unexpected and the whimsical through music. His harmonic language is adventurous, and the musical lines he crafts are full of character and complexity. In between the vibrant dances were musical depictions of insects and birds. The loveliest of these was based on Picasso’s famous drawing of a dove and featured the exquisite playing of flutist Anjali Shinde.

The second of the two works premiered at the concert was I’m Right Here by Nathalie Joachim, a multi-faceted artist working as flutist, vocalist and composer. Her first solo album, Fanm d’Ayiti, earned her a Grammy nomination for Best World Music Album. The title translates to ‘Women of Haiti’ and celebrates both her Haitian heritage and the country’s unrecognized female artists.

Joachim’s stunning music was re-created in movement by five Pa’lante Scholars from Ballet Hispánico’s tuition-free, intensive training program for aspiring dancers. With choreography by Eduardo Vilaro, the company’s artistic director, and lighting by Jackie Fox, the dancers explored the challenges, anxieties and loneliness of life. The chief figure in the drama was dancer Mariano Hurtado, who expressed the sorrow, pain and beauty inherent in the music through both his fluid movements and the depth of expression in his eyes and face. The performance was a moment in time when music and dance combined to perfection.

A sense of nostalgia swept through the theater as León introduced Paquito D’Rivera. She told of how, long ago in Havana, he accompanied her in recital. D’Rivera, who came to the US in the early 1980s, is the only artist to have won Grammy Awards in both Classical and Latin Jazz categories, in addition to the National Medal of Arts in 2005. When it was his turn to speak, D’Rivera deflected sentimentality, let alone nostalgia, with disarming charm, and described his Aires Tropicales as simply being tropical songs. Enlivened by the playing of Joseph Jordan on oboe and English horn and Marty Tung on the bassoon, the concert ended with the beguiling, enticing sounds and rhythms of warmer climes, and enlivened a cold March evening.

Rick Perdian

Ensemble Connect:
Isabelle Ai Durrenberger, violin
David Bernet, violin
Isabella Bignasca, viola
Ramón Carrero-Martínez, viola
Frankie Carr, cello
Thapelo Masita, cello
Marguerite Cox, bass
Joseph Jordan, oboe
Marty Tung, bassoon
Anjali Shinde, flute
Bixby Kennedy, clarinet (alum)
Ryan Dresen, horn
Oliver Xu, percussion
Mika Sasaki, piano (alum)
Chelsea Wang, piano

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