Nas and Anthony DeCurtis at 92Y
NYC Winter Jazzfest 2013: Day 1

Ensemble ACJW Presents Mozart and Messiaen

by Michael Cirigliano II

Ensemble ACJW, Paul Hall, Mozart, Messiaen, Feast of Music

Few musical works are as emblematic of the time and circumstances of their composition as Olivier Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time. Written in 1941 while the composer was held as a prisoner-of-war, Messiaen scored the ensemble for the only combination available to him in terms of personnel and instruments: violin, clarinet, cello, and piano. A strong example of music’s humanistic powers, the premiere performance was given on a frozen night at Stalag VIII-A—a quartet of soldiers finding spiritual solace before an audience of fellow prisoners and their captors.

The Ensemble ACJW’s performance Wednesday night at Paul Recital Hall delivered in terms of precision and acuity, but was spotty in terms of fire and style. Because of the complexity in the work’s construction and notation, it takes a stellar group to properly convey Messiaen’s use of additive rhythms, limited transposition, and bird-song transcription.

Clarinetist Liam Burke and pianist Tyler Wottrich were confident and virtuosic throughout, navigating the work’s most rhythmic and capricious moments. Particularly in the solo clarinet’s movement, “Abîme des oiseaux,” Burke easily moved between glacially paced melodies and fleeting, rapid-fire bird calls. Encompassing a wide dynamic range, he provided heart-stopping moments when transitioning from whispers into full-blown primal screams.

Wottrich’s crystalline voicing of Messiaen’s thick chordal clusters provided an enhanced sense of clarity, while his communication with the rest of the quartet was unparalleled. Particularly in the final “Louange,” Wottrich enhanced the violin’s transcendent lines, moving through each repeated rhythm to bring both urgency and respite as needed.

Unfortunately, the strings didn’t fare as well, with cellist Hannah Collins lacking both in terms of projection and intonation. Although there were fine moments in her solo “Louange,” Collins should have brought more bite to the heavier moments of the work—particularly in the second movement’s anxious trills and scales, as well as the air-raid-siren glissandos later in the piece. Grace Park gave a moving account of the final movement’s peaceful coda, but didn’t always take enough of a leadership position when dictating the group’s pacing and attack during the ferociously difficult “Danse de la fureur.”

Opening the program was an uneven account of Mozart’s Serenade in C minor for wind octet that didn’t deliver in terms of ensemble. While the overall sound was robust and polished, there was a lack of soloistic panache to oboist Stuart Breczinski and clarinetist Gabriel Campos Zamora’s principal playing. The group could have done much more to explore the softer elements of the work, rather than using each movement’s interplay as an opportunity to outdo each other, leaving a unified sense of intonation, articulation, and note length falling by the wayside.