Last night I was at the San Francisco performance of New Century Chamber Orchestra's first concerts of the season. They got a jump on the 2013 Britten centenary by scheduling the Simple Symphony and Les Illuminations, but Bartok's Divertimento, sandwiched between the two, more than held its own.
The band filed into their seats on the Herbst Theater stage, all in black with the occasional splash of peacock blue. Music Director Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg gave a brief and not really necessary preview of the season, which will include a world premiere next May by Lera Auerbach, this season's featured composer, though the featured composer for these first concerts is Britten the birthday boy. Salerno-Sonnenberg said the Simple Symphony was youthful and high-spirited and Les Illuminations was . . . not, which was amusing. This was all fine but I could have done without her assurance that the performance we were about to hear with Melody Moore was going to be the best ever. I mean, I did enjoy it very much, but I prefer not to be given instructions beforehand, as if I have no other choice.
The Simple Symphony is very enjoyable, though its antic alliterative section titles (Boisterous Bouree, Playful Pizzicato, Sentimental Saraband, and Frolicsome Finale) make the piece sound simpler than it is and don't really do justice to the stylish naivete of the actual music, though the energetic performance did. The Saraband in particular reaches depths of emotional dignity its title wouldn't lead you to expect. I also really enjoyed the delicate skittering sound of the Playful Pizzicato. The Bartok too had a bit of a misleading title, being meatier music than Divertimento might lead you to expect. When it started I was kind of surprised to discover that I knew the piece already; I would have said beforehand that I did not, but it's always gratifying to discover that one is even more knowledgeable than one thinks one is. It starts with sort of a country-jaunt sound, and at one point it seemed like very angsty salon music, and then it takes a few more turns, including a loopy pizzicato passage near the end. More pizzicato! It was an excellent selection to go with the Britten, being along the same lines but down a different track, but I thought it had more substantial qualities that almost showed up the birthday honoree, though he did reclaim the spotlight after the intermission with Les Illuminations.
I had realized I knew the Bartok but then I realized I had the wrong piece in mind for Les Illuminations, so I guess balance was restored in my little universe. For some reason I had it confused with the Serenade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings. You'd think I'd have been tipped off by the French title and by a soprano rather than a tenor as the soloist. (Also the lack of a horn soloist, but let's not pile it on. . . .) Anyway this piece is actually the setting of some late (as in, written when he was around twenty) prose poems by Rimbaud, and it shows a more sophisticated and various side of Britten, as he responded to the French poet's surreal, beautiful disturbances. Moore was a vivid and strong soloist, gesturing and acting out. I wish they had had surtitles; there was a distressing amount of program rustling going on, as well as a lot more whispering throughout the whole concert than there should have been, especially since, judging from some of the overhead conversations, many of the audience members were musicians themselves. Also, three incredibly rude people came in later after the second half had started, wandered down to the front, and stepped over others to get to their seats.
There was an encore, for Moore and Salerno-Sonnenberg's solo violin: an arrangement by Clarice Assad of the famous hymn Amazing Grace and the less famous spiritual David Play Your Harp (its formal title might be a bit different). I have to say I wasn't crazy about the results. Perhaps it would have sounded better after the first half, since those pieces hearkened back to hymns, dances, and folk tunes, but the effect was a bit jarring coming after the bizarre comedy and artistic alienation of Rimbaud and the music he evoked. But more than that, I didn't like the arrangements very much: the vocal line was very traditional, and Moore sang with a lot of heart and joy (though she did tend to swallow the word "harp" each time she sang "David play your harp," which might have been her or the arrangement), but the violin part was I thought too filigreed and artsy and recessive for the style of these sacred songs.