22 September 2015

New Century Chamber Orchestra: Letters from Russia (& other places)

Last Thursday I was at First Congregational in Berkeley for the first concert of New Century Chamber Orchestra's season. The program was called Letters from Russia, since it featured the Letter Scene from Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin among other Slavic music, but there was some contemporary music featured too, from Jennifer Higdon, this season's featured composer.

The performance opened with Estonian Arvo Pärt's Trisagion, which is Greek for Thrice Holy, and if you know anything about Pärt and his music you will not be surprised to hear that the piece is linked to the Russian Orthodox liturgy, or that it flows with a steady meditative quality, or that it is beautiful. NCCO has such a rich and sometimes even sumptuous sound; yet they can also plink and pluck and be acerbic in the Shostakovich style, as we heard later on. After Pärt's fifteen minutes, Ailyn Pérez came out for Rachmaninoff's Vocalise. She was glittering in a floor-length silver sheath, looking almost incongruously glamorous, like a mermaid just risen from the depths, among the sombre black and purple clothing of the orchestra, there in the austere arches and angles of the colonial New England-style church. She gave a suitably rich performance of Rachmaninoff's flowing line.

And then to close the first half we had sort of a Higdon sampler: Strings, the "quasi-scherzo" second movement of the Concerto for Orchestra from 2002; String Lake, another second movement, this time from All Things Majestic, a 2011 work inspired by the mountainous scenery of Wyoming; and To the Point, an arrangement of the third movement of Impressions, a 2003 string quartet written in response to Impressionist painting as well as the quartets of Ravel and Debussy. (The piece had been commissioned by the Cypress Quartet as part of a series in which composers were asked to respond in some way to a classic of the quartet repertory.) This may sound potentially like a grab-bag mishmash, but actually all three pieces went nicely together, offering enough variety as well as congruity to form a satisfying suite. I'm looking forward to hearing more of Higdon's work (including a world premiere at the season's final concert); there are depths there worth exploring.

After the intermission, the second half started with Shostakovich's Elegy and Polka (also known as Two Pieces for String Orchestra). The first part was shaped from a melancholy, moody aria from his opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtensk District, and the contrasting second part was adapted from his ballet The Golden Age, about a Soviet soccer team traveling to Paris. It sounded suitably sporty.

Then Pérez came out again to perform the Letter Scene from Onegin, in which the naive Tatiana writes a letter declaring her love to the sophisticated, Byronic Eugene Onegin. (It does not turn out well.) Clarice Assad did the arrangement of Tchaikovsky's music. When Pérez entered, she once again (glittering in her silver sheath) looked so glam and sophisticated, so much the opposite of a young country girl like Tatiana, that I wondered how she could possibly convey the character. With vocal skill, it turns out; with a finely detailed, yearning performance. Even with only the English words in the program it was easy to know exactly where she was in the aria, so well-defined was her emotional arc. The orchestra matched her level of passion and precision. What a wonderful thing all around. The applause was so great afterwards that the orchestra did an encore, a piece by Schnittke, whom Music Director and lead violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg amusingly described as of course "the first name that comes to mind when Russian music is mentioned!"

Next up for NCCO is a holiday concert in December, featuring the San Francisco Girls' Chorus and klezmer clarinetist David Krakauer; that's 17 - 20 December and you can find out more about it here.

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