Twentieth-century music from three composers with ties to Juilliard sounded fresh in the Juilliard Orchestra’s program last Thursday at Lincoln Center. Conductor Gerard Schwarz led the young musicians in thoughtful and spirited readings of mid-century works by David Diamond and William Schuman (Schuman was president of Juilliard from 1945-1962), and the 1978 Concerto for Viola and Orchestra by Jacob Druckman, who taught at the school for many years.
The orchestra acquitted itself admirably through the sometimes difficult material, and soloist Jordan Bak proved the star of the show. The most firmly modernist of the program’s three works, Druckman’s concerto calls for some unorthodox viola techniques and effects, such that I was unsurprised to learn that the composer had also worked in electronic music. Bak, though still at an early stage of his career – he is a master’s candidate at Juilliard – sailed through it all with brilliant expressiveness, as if the portamentos and percussive bowing and weird intervals were the most natural thing in the world.
The concerto opens with a ghostly and cerebral viola solo, after which the orchestra builds to the first of three jolting blasts of sound along with bursts of harmonies, skittish figures, and bounding percussion, delightfully eerie. The playful exchanges between soloist and orchestra must be a challenge to conduct, with their constant rhythmic change. It’s the kind of kinetic piece that gains much from being heard live; watching the orchestra and soloist was a vivid part of the experience.
David Diamond’s distinguished career included teaching composition at Juilliard in the 1970s and ’80s, but his compact Fourth Symphony from 1945 shows the breadth of his youthful imagination. Schwarz brought out the romantic elements and the surprises alike. The first movement’s rhythmic diversity and rainbow of colors end unexpectedly just after a new beat is established. The second movement’s stark opening folds into a sad and grandiose 3/4, peaking with a clarion call from the brass and resolving into dusky softness and an unresolved ending. The final movement’s brisk hunting theme develops through rousing violin swells followed by concussive attacks from percussion, basses, winds, and brass – modern but accessible and really quite thrilling.
The orchestra conveyed the opening section of Schuman’s Symphony No. 6 (1948) stylishly and sensitively, then proceeded through the varied sections (there are no movements per se) with all the appropriate colors – martial, keening, insistent, stately, dramatic, right through to the somber ending.
The three works together formed a powerful reminder that many of the greatest 20th-century American composers often kept audiences in mind even as they created original, boundary-breaking concert music. These pieces were meant to entertain as well as challenge, a credo Schwarz and the Juilliard Orchestra’s fine young musicians clearly took to heart.
In Jordan Bak they may also have given us a star in the making. The viola seldom gets it due, either from composers or in the popular consciousness. Druckman’s concerto draws on an unusually large array of the instrument’s capabilities, and Bak conveyed them with virtuosity and fire. He’s a young artist to watch for.