New Juilliard Ensemble Kicks Off Its Twentieth Season

Photo Credit: Hiroyuki Ito

The New Juilliard Ensemble, a unique classical student ensemble, performed the New York premiere of Chinary Ung’s “Rain of Tears”, as well as three other US premieres in its five musical piece concert.  This concert, featuring new musical compositions from Asia and the South Pacific, was held at the Peter Jay Sharp Theater in Lincoln Center and officially kicked off the Ensemble’s twentieth season of performing new or original compositions.

Founded in 1993, by pianist and conductor, Joel Sachs, who has now been a faculty member at the school for 43 years, the Ensemble is open to any student in the bachelors, masters and doctoral program through audition.  Sachs created it to give students the opportunity to perform new music instead of just the traditional repertoire of work that gets repeatedly played.  The group has become popular with students, with more than 100 involved each year, even though most compositions only have 15-20 players, and it has toured internationally.

“I would say that the majority of people that play are loyal.  We rarely get a person that will just do one concert and then not play another,” said Daniel James, a flutist in the Masters program, who has played with the Ensemble for three years, “It’s kind of special.”

The Ensemble played to an audience of 500, although some patrons left during the intermission, declining to comment.  “It was sad to see some people leave after the first half,” admitted James, “but those that stayed had a good time.”

After the concert, Sachs declared, “I was happy on all counts.  The students are not only incredibly able, but they are incredibly willing to tackle difficult challenges”.

Fran Schoen, a regular Juilliard audience member, even though her husband is a professor at the Manhattan School of Music, agreed.  “This is not amateur night somewhere downtown. The students are great and the performances are very good.”

Andrew Ford’s “Unquiet Grave”, a border ballad inspired by the conflicts between Scotland and England, was an audience favorite receiving roaring applause, and featured a viola solo played by Jocelin Pan, a masters student, who was dressed in a long red dress.

To some musicians with the Ensemble, the challenge is to get audiences to connect with these pieces they have never heard before.

“The difficulty with new music is that it isn’t as easy for the audience to understand,” said doctoral student and violinist, Alex Shiozaki, who performed in the third piece of the evening, “Cartoons” by Menachem Zur.  “When you play something by Beethoven or Brahms, most of the audience knows the piece already and all they are looking for is for you to do it right.  With new music, you have to make the audience understand the piece [and] it’s twice as difficult.”

“Cartoons” featured vocalist Davone Pines, in yellow shoes, who played several cartoonish characters through a series of nonsense syllables and clownish theatricality (resulting in an exploded bag of M&Ms), prompting laughter from the audience and performers alike.

“It was hilarious… The musicians on stage [were] smiling or laughing,” said Shiozaki after the concert, “ [and] while this certainly isn’t our usual behavior, it was more than appropriate for the piece.  In fact, any other response would have been completely unnatural.”

Jill Ofar, who saw the Ensemble perform for the first time Saturday, said, “Getting the chance and the exposure to something new and something you wouldn’t otherwise see, if you didn’t come here – It’s just unreal”.

Sachs sorts through more than 100 pieces from new composers before deciding which to select.  He said that the opportunity to have their work performed by the New Juilliard Ensemble attracts composers worldwide.  In fact, both composer Zur and Chinary Ung, who wrote the fourth piece played, “Rain of Tears,” attended Saturday’s concert in order to see their music performed.

Sachs explained that performing new work is crucial to the education of new musicians, because “if you’re going to be a decent artist of traditional music, you should really be connected with your own time also.”  He said he learned the value of new work from his own mentor, classical pianist Ray Lev.

“She said [to me], ‘it’s absolutely necessary that everybody put a new piece in every program because if you don’t, you don’t create an atmosphere in which a new Beethoven will arise and I took that very seriously.”

The final New Juilliard Ensemble concert of the Twentieth season, on April 12, 2013, will be entirely devoted to world premieres and will feature two works of Juilliard students in the Composition program.

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