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Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Concert Review: The Kids Are Alright (though one is a brat)

The Juilliard Orchestra plays Debusssy and Ravel.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Conductor Emmanuel Villaume led the Juilliard Orchestra on Monday night.
Photo by Paul Leclaire.
The combined forces of Juilliard Orchestra and Juilliard Opera students came together on Monday night to give an evening of Debussy and Ravel, a set of performances that offered a much needed beacon of musical hope in what is a particularly dark and troubled time for the arts community around Lincoln Center. The program, under the direction of French conductor Emmanuel Villaume offered a major work by each composer and a Ravel rarity to boot.

The concert opened with Ravel's Menuet antique, written in the composer's early years and standing as his first published work. Although the original piece is for solo piano, this orchestration from 1929 proved rich and rewarding, with the only puzzle being why it is so infrequently played. The Juilliard Orchestra, playing on the extended stage of Alice Tully Hall brought a rising swell of sound to the three sections of the work, which flowed from a precise and mincing start to a more lyrical central section. Both themes returned in the last part of the dance, whirling to a kaleidoscopic finish.

Mr. Villaume also proved an inspired choice for the next work on the program: Debussy's La Mer. These three sketches for orchestra are the nearest thing in this composer's catalogue to a symphony. Mr. Villaume took a quick-footed approach to the opening, managing the uncanny task of keeping the tempo loping forward while seeming to stop time itself in the grand gong-accented climaxes. The orchestra responded like the future professionals they are, with special note being given to the details painted in by the flutes and harps.

Those instruments are at the fore again in Dance and Play of the Waves, the work's second movement. The orchestra moved nimbly through Debussy's ocean-spanning choreography, giving impressions of salt spray and dappled light that are woven into this magical score. The work's grand finale, Dialogue of the Wind and the Sea brings back some of the climactic "surge" material for the first movement, its waves transformed through the magic of orchestration into crashing, billowing breakers. Mr. Villaume brought off the great brass-accented climax to this work, with chattering trumpets and raging horns giving a convincing picture of the sea at its angriest.

For the second half of this program, Mr. Villaume chose an opera: one of the two one-act works by Ravel that comprise that composer's entire operatic output. L'enfant et les sortiléges ("The Child and the Enchantments") is in many ways an ideal choice for conservatory performance. Based on a story by Colette, it is the tale of a Child who finds himself the unwelcome target of revenge on the part of the books, beasts, bugs, and bedknobs that have been subject to his reign of terror. With lots of characters, L'Enfant demands a skilled ensemble cast that can bring off the varied roles and an orchestra that is powerful and flexible enough to meet Ravel's demands.

The Juilliard Orchestra was expanded even further for this performance. Three keyboards, a grand piano, a celeste and a prepared upright (with aluminum foil under the hammers) were added, and corridors were made between the rows of players to permit the singers to enter and exit as needed. The whole cast, including Kelsey Lauritano as the Child were dressed in white tops and black pants or skirts, letting their voices and the rich orchestration supply all of the color that is infused within this score. Under the direction of Edward Berkely, the prop-less staging (with one exception noted below) was entertaining in its simplicity.

The singers appeared in pairs. Xiaomeng Zhang and Anneliese Klenetsky were the Chair and the Ottoman, objecting to the child's brutalities. Matthew Pearce and Lady Evanyshin were the Wedgwood Teapot and Chinese Cup, with the celesta providing pointillist detail. Gregory Feldmann and made a convincing pair of cats, their meow-ed duet drawing some of the biggest laughs especially as they tried to use Mr. Villaume as a scratching post.

Soprano Onadek Winan made a strong impression as the Fire, tossing off difficult coloratura with the ease and confidence of a future star. Finally, tenor James Ley stole Mr. Villaume's baton to make his point as Arithmetic, his garbled equations drawing puzzlement and laughs. As the chorus of Shepherds and later as the chorus of animals, the Juilliard singers brought this work to vivid life. Lessons learned, the Child called for their Mama, their bad behavior corrected...at least for now. 

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.