06 February 2016

New Century Chamber Orchestra: Daniel Hope's tribute to Yehudi Menuhin

Last Thursday I was at First Congregational Church in Berkeley to hear New Century Chamber Orchestra. Violinist Daniel Hope was the guest concertmaster, and he had put together an interesting and varied program in tribute to his mentor, Yehudi Menuhin, who would have turned 100 this coming April 22. Hope has a new CD out called My Tribute to Yehudi Menuhin whose program is a bit different from the one I heard Thursday, a difference which shows the wide range of Menuhin's musical interests and influences. All of the pieces had some association with Menuhin; some were commissioned by him or written in his honor, others he played frequently.

Hope's mother was Menuhin's secretary and then manager, and Hope grew up in close association with the great violinist. Though I'm not a big fan of musicians talking from the stage rather than playing, I make an exception in certain cases, as when an artist is talking about his or her own work or a performer is giving some personal insight into a great composer or older musician. I have to say I found Hope's comments a bit disappointing in this regard; too often they were general remarks about the music, which could speak for itself. We did get some more personal anecdotes and insights, but I would have preferred more, with comments on the music left for the program book. That was really my only disappointment with the concert, though.

Each half began with a substantial baroque work; in the first half it was Bach's Concerto in D Minor for 2 Violins, Strings and Basso Continuo, BWV 1043. Hope and Dawn Harms were the titular two violins. I've heard New Century fairly often, but each time I'm impressed by the richness and precision of sound they produce. Hope obviously has a great rapport with the group, and there was much generous and genial back-and-forth in the playing and during the bows after each piece. After the Bach we heard some more recent pieces, Arvo Pärt's Darf ich . . . (May I . . .)  – Hope said that when Menuhin received the piece, which was written for him, he looked at the title and said, "May I what?" That suggests some of the open-endedness of the piece. As is typical for Pärt, haunting effects were created through seemingly simple means. It's an interesting piece to have written for a virtuoso, suggesting spiritual substance rather than flash. The same was true of the next piece, Philip Glass's Echorus for 2 Violins and Strings. Echorus is meant to evoke echo rather than e-commerce; the echoing violin was played by Iris Stone. The music had that undercurrent of melancholy that I frequently hear in Glass. The first half closed with a youthful Violin Concerto by Felix Mendelssohn – not the famous one, but one written when he was thirteen and only rediscovered in the 1950s, when Menuhin gave the modern premiere. It's an inventive, bubbling piece and provided a flashing end to the first half.

The audience had been impeccable so far, but apparently several people came down with a severe cough during intermission, and the two women behind me felt that it was very important to whisper during one of the pieces. I suppose the general audience impeccability had been too good to last, but I enjoyed it while it did. Our big baroque opener for this half was Vivaldi's Concerto for 2 Violins in A Minor, RV 522. Then, again duplicating the structure of the first half, we had two fairly brief and meditative modern pieces: first Unfinished Journey, which borrows the title of Menuhin's autobiography. It was written by Bechara El-Khoury for the tenth anniversary of Menuhin's death and was premiered by Hope. The next piece, Toru Takemitsu's Nostalghia: In Memory of Andrei Tarkovskij, though written in memory of someone else (the great Russian film director Tarkovsky), was composed for Menuhin. Both these pieces, as well as the Pärt and Glass in the first half, suggested an interesting portrait of Menuhin as a searching and spiritual man and artist. Other than that they were not similar pieces, but had a pleasing variety of effect. The concert ended with a lively rendition of Béla Bartók's Romanian Folk Dances. Hope told an interesting story at this point about Menuhin's deep connection with this composer: he played him one of his violin and piano sonatas, and Bartók responded that he thought a composer had to be dead for years before his music could be played like that. It was another indication of the deep commitment and searching artistry of the older violinist. I never had a chance to hear Menuhin live, but after this concert I felt I understood what he was about. What a beautiful tribute to a great man.

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