New Century Chamber Orchestra Delights
By Lou Fancher
Better than: Geometry. The concert was all about angles and surfaces, but unlike anything force-fed in a 10th grade mathematics class.
Now in its 23rd season, the most surprising aspect of the New Century Chamber Orchestra’s season opener on Thursday night in Berkeley was the way the ensemble continues to surprise.
United as a collaborative, conductorless ensemble under the bow of world-renowned violinist and music director Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg for seven seasons, spark and sizzle came from unexpected directions. Aside from the sheer forcefulness of the 19-member string ensemble’s presentation, percussionists Galen Lemmon and Artie Storch anchored the evening’s repertoire — or shook it into unexpected territory. Guest clarinetist and NCCO’s Feature Composer for the season, Derek Bermel, provided talent and tease in his three compositions. Proving himself capable of playing anything and everything on his instrument, Bermel joined members of the ensemble in his A Short History of the Universe for String Quartet and Clarinet. (The New York City-based artist’s Oct Up for Two String Quartets and Percussion and Silvioudades hinted at good things to come. The West Coast premiere of a new work by Bermel, co-commissioned by NCCO in collaboration with a national consortium of orchestras, closes the 2014-15 season in May 2015.)
Bermel’s diagrammatic Short History suspended time and tested the tension between alternative rhythms. The work’s three movements’ scaled the wall of sound: violins skittering dervish-like, clarinet spritely bouncing or plunging athletically, cello skating marvelously throughout and ending on Salerno-Sonnenberg’s final, trembling note.
Two all-too-short works by Bermel followed, with Oct Up’s tight loops forming circles in which the marvelous percussionists’ polyrhythms pulsed. Meeting like two friends who stumble upon each other and decide to have drinks, Salerno-Sonnenberg and Bermel rendered the sweet and somewhat sorrowful Silvioudades. A ragtime-influenced chôros, Bermel mastered the Brazilian style while jamming with friends in Rio de Janeiro nightclubs.
Between the Bermel compositions, Arvo Pärt’s serene Fratres arrived like an ocean. Calm on the surface, constructed as much with minimalism as it is with the Russian composer’s mastery of harmonic sequences, the ensemble unleashed the work’s quiet power. Deftness and depth — NCCO has both in spades.
After intermission, the triumphant Carmen Suite gave listeners an almost-square classical structure on which to end the evening. Composer Rodion Shchedrin based his score on George Bizet’s opera — skewing it to suit his ballerina wife Maya Plisetskaya and her art form’s metaphor-in-movement language.
Served up with equal measures of sauce and subtlety, the work was like the Sahara Desert: Hot on the surface, surprisingly cool below; vast in scale, but made of parts (13 sections) small enough to be held in hand and allowed to filter; mountainous, but accessible enough to recognize and find satisfying symmetry in the fragmented Habanera bookending the work’s prologue and epilogue. Here too, percussion created thrilling angularity and added acute vitality to the steady maturity of NCCO’s declarative string playing. Geometry rocks in the New Century playbook.
Critic’s Notebook: Bravo Brevity! Extra applause for keeping commentary short while introducing Philip Wilder, new Executive Director. No pleas for donations, no pumping of season highlights, no ponderous reminders of the financial difficulties nonprofit organizations face. Just a few words of greeting and then, marvelous music.