Sunday, November 12, 2017

NCCO Perks Up Under Beilman’s Leadership

Readers may recall that this site was less than enthusiastic about the first concert in the 2017–2018 season of the New Century Chamber Orchestra (NCCO), led by Artistic Partner Daniel Hope. The overall impact of the evening was never more than lukewarm, and the general impression was that Hope spent more time talking to the audience than establishing a compelling chemistry with his ensemble. Last night NCCO returned to Herbst Theatre with violinist Benjamin Beilman serving as both Guest Concertmaster and soloist. There was definitely a new sheriff in town; and, to mix metaphors, NCCO wasted no time in getting back its mojo.

Given the secure confidence that Beilman brought to his leadership, it is hard to recall that his local debut, given in the Young Masters Series of San Francisco Performances (SFP), took place only this past February. He prepared a program that extended from the seventeenth century of Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber to the very recent past (2007) of contemporary composer Andrew Norman. In his capacity as soloist, he selected Johann Sebastian Bach’s BWV 1042 concerto in E major, an impressive choice given that the earliest composer on his SFP program was Johannes Brahms. Twentieth-century modernism was represented by Igor Stravinsky’s “Basle” concerto in D; and the program concluded with Gustav Mahler’s arrangement for string orchestra of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 95 (“Serioso”) quartet in F minor.

As a Bach soloist Beilman showed a clear appreciation for the intimate spirit of music-making among friends, which may well have been the intention behind the creation of BWV 1042. He had no trouble displaying his agile command of the solo passages without any suggestion of upstaging his supporting ensemble. He was also never afraid to add embellishments of his own, particularly when presenting recapitulated material. All instruments may have been played with a decidedly contemporary technical approach; but there was still a clear sense that the spirit behind the music was “historically informed.” Within the scope of my own listening experience, it was a delight to observe that Beilman was as comfortable with his Bach as he had been with his Brahms earlier this year. (Brahms, of course, had his own love of Bach’s music and was a faithful subscriber to the Bach Gesellschaft’s publication of that composer’s complete works.)

The Bach concerto closed out the first half of the program, which began with an even earlier selection, Biber’s musical depiction of a battle. Beilman confined his remarks to the audience to the very beginning and then primarily to apologize that harpsichordist JungHae Kim’s name had been omitted from the program book. (R.I.P. editing and proofreading: The year of Bach’s death was given as 1950!) However, he also prepared the audience for many of the imaginative “sound effects” that Biber had written into his score.

On the other hand he left the second movement of this suite as a surprise. Biber gave this movement the title “Die liederliche Gesellschaft von allerley Humor,” which translates roughly as “the songs of a company of knights with many different attitudes.” Each instrument depicts one of those knights and “sings” that knight’s song. The instruments enter one-by-one; but, as each one enters, the others keep playing their own songs. The overall effect was a hysterically funny evocation of a style that we normally associate with Charles Ives, even though Biber concocted this piece over 200 years before Ives’ birth.

Biber’s sense of humor served to establish the proper spirit for listening to Stravinsky’s concerto. This piece comes from what is usually called his neoclassical period, although the spirit of the music owes more to composers like Biber and Bach than it does to the First Viennese School. The spirit is clearly a playful one, bouncing along in steady rhythms as the motifs peregrinate from one set of instruments to another. The comic spirit of the piece, however, comes from Stravinsky’s approach to the perfect cadence. He uses these as punctuation marks to cut off his churning rhythms; and, rhetorically, they come across as the intrusions of an unwelcome guest. The cadences are there only because tradition demands their presence, so Stravinsky turns them into objects of ridicule.

Such prankish high spirits could also be found after the intermission in Norman’s “Gran Turismo.” Norman scored this piece “For Eight Virtuoso Violinists” (presumably his own wording). The piece is, for the most part, a richly textured perpetuum mobile of throbbing energy, suggesting that each individual line is a part of an elegantly designed sports car engine.

Often a new work is best assessed in terms of its impact on the players. In this case Hrabba Atladottir, on the right end of the line of violinists, was never shy about breaking out in smiles while playing this piece; and those smiles were definitely infectious. In the past I have had doubts about Norman overplaying his hand, but in this case his spirit was right on the money. The players seemed to appreciate this; and it was not difficult for the attentive listener to “get the spirit.”

On the other hand spirit was what was most lacking in Mahler’s Beethoven arrangement. Opus 95 covers a wide range of emotional dispositions; but it is probably best known for many of its rapid-fire passages, which must be played fearlessly or not at all. Being in the presence of a string quartet channeling all of their physical and spiritual energies into this music is one of the great delights of listening to the chamber music repertoire. The problem is that adding more instruments to each of those lines tends to dilute the effect, rather than pump it up with steroids. There is no doubting that all of the NCCO players gave their respective parts everything they had, but Mahler seems not to have appreciated that this was one of those cases in which more was definitely not better.

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