24 September 2017

New Century Chamber Orchestra: season opener

Last Thursday I went to First Congregational Church in Berkeley to hear the New Century Chamber Orchestra. The concert was not only this excellent group's season opener, it was the first under new Artistic Partner Daniel Hope after Artistic Director Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg's departure and the first concert (at least that I've been to) at First Congregational since the terrible fire there about a year ago. There was new music, too, so the concert's official title – New Horizons – seemed more appropriate than these things usually are.

The red brick church itself, in its stripped-down New England Protestant style, looks as good as ever, though a little more bare than it used to be inside (if there is an altar it was moved, and their usual banners were not hanging). Outside things are a little rougher than I expected; some of the yard in front of the church is fenced off, and there is a burnt-out parish building still braced and blockaded. I don't know if something is not yet settled in the back of the church, because the players entered and exited by walking down the center aisle. So the rebuilding is still in progress, but it's nice to have this familiar and beloved venue available again.

The new pieces on the program were framed by old favorites; the concert opened with Mendelssohn's Octet and closed with Tchaikovsky's Serenade, both performed with NCCO's familiar sound, lush and deep. I hadn't heard either piece for quite a while and it's nice to have that "oh, yeah, this is that piece" feeling as the music returns to memory. Hope spoke before each piece; his remarks were brief and pertinent, though I continue to feel that if your work-night concert is not even starting until 8:00, then you should eschew the chatting.

Before the second piece we heard a brief introduction from Alan Fletcher, which was fine since he was the composer and this was its world premiere. A co-commission among NCCO, the Zurich Chamber Orchestra, and the Savannah Festival, this violin concerto (titled Violin Concerto) featured Daniel Hope as the soloist and is dedicated to him. Fletcher mentioned some of the influences on him while writing it – mostly visual, like moonlight on the ocean off the Maine coast, but also aural, from the natural world, as in the sound of waves and lapping water. (I was a bit amused that in his remarks he mentioned inspirational waters around the Bay Area, along with other connections to this area, while in the program book his notes mostly linked these elements to Zurich and its lake: why not, water is everywhere, and necessary everywhere. There is also a chorale by Reformation leader Zwingli worked into and varied in the music; Zwingli is ineluctably Zurich, but Fletcher did point out how appropriate it was that we were in a Protestant church (though one inclusive beyond the Reformer's dreams or fears).) The piece opens with a cleaner, more stylized "tuning" segment of the sort that gets done informally before each concert, and then it moves off into a more romantic sound world, though instead of working up a few big tunes that get repeated the music frequently swerves off into another view until finally it swirls up and vanishes. There is a lot of landscape-inspired music now, much of it evoking wide-open spaces and airier more evanescent qualities; this piece sounded heftier – more mountainous, if you will. It's a very attractive piece, which I enjoyed quite a lot.

The other new or newish piece on the program came after the intermission, Orawa by Wojciech Kilar. The title refers to a region in Poland, named for the river that runs through it. So as with the Fletcher piece, we had music inspired by landscapes, particularly those involving water, but in this case there was also a concentration on the peasant dances of the region. There is a repeating figure that gets louder, somewhat in the style of Ravel's Bolero, and it ends with the orchestra players all crying out Hey! It was a fun piece. Then came the melodious enchantments of the Tchaikovsky Serenade, followed after applause by a brief encore, a setting of America the Beautiful, and here's where for once I wanted to hear something from the stage, because I was curious who did this arrangement, which managed to shed a poignant grace on the exhausted sentiments of the overly familiar song.

Next up for New Century is a concert series on 8 - 12 November, with violinist Benjamin Beilman leading another combination of music both old (Bach, Biber, Beethoven) and new (Andrew Norman; and should Stravinsky go here or, at this point, under old music?). Check here for more details.

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