I discovered the New Century Chamber Orchestra this season (well, only in the sense that Columbus “discovered” America – they’ve been there for quite a while, but now I know about them, with surely happier results than the Italian’s discovery). I went to last November’s concert, which featured Strauss’s Metamorphosen. The complex, sombre mood of this piece comes through even if you don’t know about the bombing of the Munich opera house towards the end of Strauss’s life or about his complicated relationship with the Nazi regime. I heard a performance at the Boston Symphony back when I lived there and it’s one of those performances that has haunted me since. And I still remember one fatuous concertgoer cheerily announcing afterwards, “That was not written by a happy man!” which he seemed to find alien in some way.
I was fascinated by NCCO’s performance, which despite the richness of its sound brought out something lighter in the piece than the BSO did – something that made me realize why it was called a metamorphosis rather than an elegy, something that brought out the possibilities of change as well as the sadness of loss. I understand from Joshua Kosman’s article on NCCO in the latest Gramophone (the one with so many pages dedicated to Mahler that it looks like the San Francisco Symphony’s season schedule) that their next recording will feature Metamorphosen, so that’s certainly one to look forward to.
William Bolcom was the other composer featured last November (he is this year’s Featured Composer, a program that is one of the innovations of newish music director Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, and their early May concerts will include the world premiere of his Romanza, a violin concerto they commissioned). I’m a long-time Bolcom fan, from back in the days when I knew him only as an impresario of American song, and not a composer. It says a lot for Bolcom’s strength that his music stood up to the Strauss, since both his pieces were lighter in conception and tone. First came Serenata Notturna, featuring Laura Griffiths on oboe, which as the name implies is a bit along the lines of Eine Kleine Nachtmusik. That was followed by Three Rags for strings, including Graceful Ghost, which I had only heard before in its piano version. It’s a gently insinuating piece, and I sometimes see it described as Bolcom’s best known, which I believe; I swear I heard it the other day through the overhead speakers as I was walking through a shopping mall on my way to work.
About a week or so ago I went to their third concert of the season, Serenades and Dances (NCCO gave me a ticket to this one). The first piece was Hugo Wolf’s Italian Serenade, which was an interesting view into a composer mostly famed for lieder, kind of like hearing Chopin’s songs and realizing that he did more than one thing, even if the one thing is what he’s justifiably best known for. That was followed by Dvorak’s Serenade for Strings, which is one of those pieces I realize I know when I hear them – one of those “oh yeah, I recognize that!” pieces. Both were beautifully played but there was something odd about the acoustic that night. Perhaps it was just that I was farther back than I usually sit (I heard both concerts at First Congregational in Berkeley, and I’ve had odd experiences with the acoustics there during some Philharmonia Baroque concerts too). It may just have been a more distant sound that I’m used to, but I really wasn’t that far back. I didn’t feel that great that night, so that may have entered into it.
It takes audiences as well as performers some time to get used to a building’s acoustic, so maybe that was why it took me a song or two to start enjoying the first piece in the second half, Britten’s Serenade for Tenor, Horn, Strings and Pages Constantly Rustled by Three Ladies Too Damn Stupid to Find the Texts in the Program And Who Are Of Course Sitting Right Next to Me. Um, yeah, there may also have been some irritation with the audience going on there. Kevin Rivard provided the horn playing, superlative throughout. Brian Thorsett was the tenor. I found his first song too slow – it just fell apart for me and sounded choppy. But either he adjusted or I did and by the time we got to the Elegy and Dirge of the fourth and fifth movements (the settings of Blake’s O Rose and of an anonymous fifteenth century dirge) I was finding the power in his performance. His commitment to the performance was never in doubt. He has a bit of an English tenor sound, which of course is the voice Britten wrote this piece for, but for some reason I wasn’t expecting it, I guess. I honestly don’t quite know what to make of my initial reaction, and I should point out that people I trust were much more enthusiastic about the entire Britten performance than I managed to be (check here for Lisa’s view and here for SFMike’s, though he did hear a different performance in a different venue). Maybe I just wanted too much from it – the Britten was the big draw for me on this program. I went into my CD piles afterwards and dug up three other versions (Britten/Pears/Brain, Britten/Pears/Tuckwell, and Bedford/Mackie/Tuckwell) to listen to for comparison. I mostly came to the conclusion that it’s a great piece, and I wish there were more opportunities to hear it live.
The concert ended with Bartok’s Romanian Folk Dances, which were just wonderful: rich and vivid and piquant, each ending abruptly after giving us a glimpse of a whole world. When I got home, as usual after a concert it took me a while to fall asleep so I was channel-surfing and came across something called Celtic Thunder, which seemed to be the butch version of the equally horrifying Celtic Woman. It was all so bad – the clunky dancing, the ugly sets, the generic lyrics and overdone pop songs, the omnipresent facial microphones for the singers, making them look as if they had foul tumors near their mouths – that I found it perversely riveting. My usual view is that I don’t care what people listen to as long as they don’t make me listen to it and that life is not so full of pleasures that I will sneer at something that gives other people happiness, but sometimes I get sick of trying to be wise and generous and my inner daemon has to burst forth sneering. Maybe because this tripe was on a public television station, and I’m old enough to remember when they regularly featured operas and symphonies and jazz and filmed plays – you know, things you really actually couldn’t get on other stations. And now they not only feature this trash, they insist it’s why we should support them. What a contrast to the concert I’d just heard in Berkeley. It made me very grateful for the dedicated musicians I heard earlier in the evening, who don't get nearly the fame and financing of something like Celtic Thunder but whose work is so immeasurably superior.