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A Romantic Style

A lecture-concert by
M Zachary Johnson and his ensemble,
reviewed by ANNA L FRANCO


The newly formed MZJ Ensemble performed at the Liederkranz of New York City, Sunday afternoon, 22 February 2009. M Zachary Johnson, founder of the ensemble, led the lecture-concert, the second in a series of three, as Alex Richardson, tenor, and nineteen instrumentalists performed Four Songs.

Functioning as conductor, composer and lecturer, Johnson gave the audience an inside view into the creation of his compositions. Guiding the audience through a 'composer's workshop', he had each instrument group play a section of their part alone, exposing the layers of the work. Then he demonstrated how the lines fit together. Finally the ensemble played the entire piece. It was a rare opportunity to see a complex work taken apart and put back together again by its creator.

M Zachary Johnson delivering his lecture. Photo © 2009 Jocelyn Miller
M Zachary Johnson delivering his lecture. Photo © 2009 Jocelyn Miller

The Four Songs are nineteenth century Romantic poetry set to music. William Wordsworth's She was a Phantom of Delight compares a beautiful woman to some ethereal being, yet noting at the same time her earthly qualities. Summum Bonum ('Highest Good'), by Robert Browning, proclaims the highest good to be the kiss of one girl, far surpassing gems and anything else in the universe. Alex Richardson sang with vibrant power, balancing perfectly with the orchestral ensemble, while still remaining sensitive to the intricacies of the melody and the meaning of the lyrics. He sang The Night Has a Thousand Eyes, by Francis William Bourdillon, with a haunting sorrow, as it captured the anguish of lost love. Finally, She Walks in Beauty (by George Gordon, Lord Byron) compares a woman's beauty to the night sky. Tenor Alex Richardson is on the roster of the Marilyn Horne Foundation and will be performing at the Marilyn Horne Foundation Gala in Huntsville, Alabama, this March.

Throughout the concert, Johnson reviewed some of his compositional effects, such as how to create a rolling motion sound, a 'wash of sound', and how to keep the long instrumental lines from overpowering the soloist. As someone who recently took composition and orchestration courses, I found this lecture-concert to be an insightful way to learn about how the composer designed complex orchestral works.

Alex Richardson and the MZJ Ensemble conducted by M Zachary Johnson. Photo © 2009 Jocelyn Miller
Alex Richardson and the MZJ Ensemble conducted by M Zachary Johnson. Photo © 2009 Jocelyn Miller

The MZJ Ensemble is a new project for Johnson. At the first lecture-concert, held in October 2008, the ensemble performed excerpts from Portrait of a Woman, a dramatic tribute in theme and variation with a deeply interwoven texture; Memorial, the first of a pair of military marches; Adagio with Javier Oviedo on alto saxophone, was arranged for ensemble. The concert concluded with an arrangement of Schubert's Ave Maria with Christopher Brellochs on soprano saxophone and Benje Daneman on trumpet. The third lecture-concert will be held in May 2009.

Johnson received his degrees from the Mannes College of Music and University of Michigan. He has won two ASCAPLUS Awards (2007 and 2008) and now teaches at the Preparatory Division at Mannes College. He recently released his second CD, Serenade, a studio recording of his works for saxophone and piano, performed by Brian Horner and Elizabeth Avery, and recorded on the Sound Artist Records label, formed by Horner.

In a city where new things are continually expected, Johnson always delivers with quality and delight, with a Romantic style that welcomes the listener into a world of the unusual and the bright.

Copyright © 26 February 2009 Anna L Franco, New York City, USA



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