It's been an interesting couple of weeks. On Saturday I was moving some things around between my apartment and a storage unit and I unexpectedly came across some mementos of the past- specifically from two years ago when my affair with the Femme Fatale was shifting into a different, more intense mode. Among them was a program from a concert by the New Century Chamber Orchestra, which took place almost two years ago to the day. That was a crazy time, full of irresponsible, decadent misbehaving, and we relished every minute of it. We spent two years trying to recapture the intensity of that moment, but in the end we failed, leaving a long wake of wreckage behind us, and as I was looking at the contents of this box, which were all over the floor, I was reminded once again that one of the weirdest side-effects of writing this blog is how it marks time. Another year, another season opens, performances take place, then the season closes. Repeat. Live. Watch your life expire slowly before your eyes.
However, little of that was on my mind as I watched GG get off the bus later that same evening to meet me for this year's version of the same concert. There's just something about a six-foot-tall redhead in heels which empties one's mind of almost everything else. We had dinner together, and afterward entered the outer lobby of the Herbst Theatre where I spotted a Renaissance man of my acquaintance. We chatted him up a bit before a young women who had just spent the summer as a Fellow at Tanglewood approached us and joined in the conversation. Then it was time to sit, and as we entered the auditorium, I was surprised to see a number empty seats- not many, mind you, but more than I expected.
The nineteen members of the New Century Chamber Orchestra began their 21st season with a tribute to Benjamin Britten in honor of the centennial of his birth. It's odd to think Britten could still be with us, like Elliot Carter is, had he possessed a stronger heart, and to wonder about what he would have composed in the last third of his life. This concert featured two of his works from the 1930s- still early in his career, but already well-established as a major composer.
It began with the Simple Symphony, the movements of which, like its title, are alliteratively named and this playfulness is infused throughout the work. Simple in this case, is somewhat misleading, because while it's easy to follow and engagingly melodic throughout, to create something as accessible and pleasing as this is no simple task. The second movement, played entirely pizzicato, was perhaps my favorite if for no other reason than I enjoyed the sheer novelty of it, though it also required the musicians to re-tune before the saraband of the third, somewhat breaking the spell. The "Frolicsome Finale" was played with New Century's usual vigor.
Speaking of vigor, the second work on the program was Bartók's Divertimento for String Orchestra (1939) was probably the best performance I've heard from this orchestra to date. While the title translates into "entertainment" there's a pervading seriousness to it all, which New Century exquisitely brought out during the second movement's adagio. How Bartók fit into a Britten celebration wasn't clear to me, but the result made it a moot point. This is a versatile group, but intense pieces like this, which require not only technical skill but true cohesion among players, bring out the best in them. The entire piece was just fantastic and I look forward to seeing the orchestra release a recording of it.
During the intermission, GG and I chatted with some of the usual suspects, and I was gently mocked for having a picture of me published in the newspaper on Friday, taken at last week's SF Symphony gala. It seems very few acquaintances of mine read the paper anymore, for no more than a handful at best mentioned having seen it. I only wish it was a better photo and that I had done a better job with my bow tie.
Soprano Melody Moore joined the orchestra for Britten's Les Illuminations (1939), which features excerpts of poems by Arthur Rimbaud set to nine pieces of music. Moore was in full dramatic mode, matching vocal intensity with commanding physical presence for each piece. In the middle of the third (I think), three people with no clue about audience etiquette (or, assholes, if you will) returned late from intermission to take their seats in the second or third row. Why they had to disrupt the musicians and the audience instead of taking seats in the back is a good question for both the offenders and the Herbst ushers to answer. Moore and the orchestra played right through it, without letting any annoyance show. Now, I don't speak French, but I've heard enough of it, and with the text translations in my lap I still had a very difficult understanding Moore at times, while during others it was easier to discern what she was singing. The overall result was a strong one, but not enough to remove the Bartók as the evening's highlight.
There was an encore consisting of two ill-chosen spirituals featuring Moore and Music Director Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg.
The New Century Chamber Orchestra will return in mid-December to perform a program designed to show off their soloists featuring Vivaldi's Four Seasons alongside works by Handel, Clarice Assad, and Lera Auerbach. Tickets can be purchased here.