Sometime in late November publicists for the New Century Chamber Orchestra asked if I would be interested in reviewing the orchestra's new CD. I immediately responded yes- no one's ever asked me to review a classical CD before and having recently seen them perform I thought it would be an interesting challenge. A day or two later I received the CD in the mail and when I opened it and looked at the titles I thought to myself this is too close to the holidays to listen to this and have any sort of response that won't be maudlin at best, suicidal at worst.
So I placed it in a corner along with the PR materials and let it sit. Through Thanksgiving, through Hanukkah, through Christmas, through New Year's. The guilt compounded. Such nice folks to send me a copy and here I am, afraid to listen to it, just waiting for the right moment. Finally I decided this was the week. Well, yesterday I heard a 40 year-old neighbor of mine was found dead in her apartment, then came news Gerry Rafferty died, reminding me a certain girl from my long-lost-youth, and more directly of my long-lost-youth having sex with this particular girl, and then the Femme Fatale gets all jittery on me and so I come home after a trip to BevMo and decide tonight's the night (the poor people at NCCO are probably never going to ask me to attend or review anything again after this but they should have known what they were getting into- this isn't your average classical music blog- but you can go here and here if you want a more straightforward review).
After pouring a stiff one, I insert the disc, which is a live recording of Barber's Adagio for Strings, Richard Strauss' Metamorphosen for 23 Solo Strings and Mahler's Adagietto from his Fifth Symphony. If you already know this music, and surely you know the Barber at least (and you do even if you think you don't), you can easily understand why this bunch didn't exactly leap out and say "play this and get in the mood for the holidays!"
Barber's Adagio suffers from the overexposure weighing down a select, though large, group of classical compositions that makes it difficult to separate what we've been culturally bludgeoned to associate it with upon hearing from how the work actually makes us respond to it on its own terms. This recording remedies that to certain degree, though I can't tell if it's by design or just fortuitous good luck. It's Barber alright, and of course its painful and beautiful, but it's also a bit raw and in your face- as if to say "yes, you've heard this a thousand times but pay attention to this." What that is, in the hands of this orchestra, is an Adagio resisting the maudlin, intent on drawing out the pathos of the piece. If it's not beautiful in certain moments, it certainly in an arresting performance that grabs one's attention, making me feel as if I was hearing this overly familiar work from someone who didn't want it to sound reassuring or even worse, sad, but wanted the listener to feel it resonate within them. It forsakes prettiness for potency- and in these times that's a welcome substitute.
Strauss' Metamorphosen for 23 Solo Strings, written during WWII when the composer was nearing 80 years old, is a threnody for what was lost at the hands of the Third Reich. At least that's always been my take on it- I don't care if you disagree. It has a unique structure- a work for 23 strings which rarely play together in anything resembling a melody you might expect. Broken down into various groups and combinations, this is serious regret writ large upon Beethoven's, not Hitler's corpse. It's also the recording which inspired this disc, according to Nadja Salero-Sonnenberg, for which she sought other performances/pieces to match it (hence my holiday aversion). The opening is beautiful, evoking a sense of loss and bewilderment- a tone which NCCO carries throughout the piece as it winds its way between the influence of Beethoven and Wagner before traversing a more modernist path, ending in ambiguous notes suggesting what lies ahead remains unable to be seen, perhaps best not to think about, like an inconclusive conversation between lovers at a crossroads.
I recently saw NCCO give an impressive performance of the Adagietto, which worked incredibly well in a live setting, but taking a single movement from a larger work is tricky business in a recording. These 10 minutes of Mahler leave me wanting what comes before and after, something beyond what NCCO can deliver.
The New Century Chamber Orchestra will begin a national tour on February 1st, with a local performance at Herbst on Saturday, January 29th, featuring the tour repertoire, including audience favorite Four Seasons of Buenos Aires by Astor Piazzolla and Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings. Tickets can be had here.