Sunday, September 24, 2017

A Weak Start for NCCO’s New “Partnership”

The program book for New Horizons the title of the first program in the 2017–2018 season of the New Century Chamber Orchestra (NCCO) names Daniel Hope as “Artistic Partner.” One is expected to distinguish this from “Music Director;” but it is unclear how or why. A chamber orchestra is, de facto, a much more collaborative organization than a full symphony orchestra, suggesting that all participants are partners and that responsibility for direction will be fluid and/or shared. New Horizons marked Hope’s first appearance as a “partner” in this organization; and the overall experience suggested that its was still unclear what that partnership would entail.

Like outgoing Music Director Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, Hope clearly had a hand in selecting repertoire, meaning that those of us on audience side should expect to encounter new faces. The most striking of these last night was that of the late Polish composer Wojciech Kilar (who died in his late seventies in 2013). He was represented by the shortest work on the program. “Orawa” is named after the river that crosses the border between Poland and Slovakia; and it is easy to make a case that this piece is a latter-day reflection on “Vltava” (the Moldau) from Bedřich Smetana’s cycle of six symphonic poems, Má vlast (my homeland).

Like Smetana’s river, Kilar’s begins with a trickle and gradually builds strength, encountering local folk music along its path. Unlike Smetana, however, Kilar based his structure on a grammar of repetitive structures that could easily be a reflection of the music of Philip Glass, who coined that phrase as his preferred alternative to “minimalism.” Kilar, however, is more disposed to repetition with minor variations than Glass is when precise repetition is at the heart of his music. The result is a refreshing (an apposite attribute for a river) technique that takes Glass’ device in an innovative direction.

Last night’s performance approached that technique with vigorous enthusiasm. Furthermore, it was evident that this was a collaborative enthusiasm, rather than one induced a led by a “music director.” Hope may have been the one to place Kilar on the NCCO radar; but the embrace of his music was decidedly collective, making for the most stimulating experience of the evening.

“Orawa” was played immediately after the intermission; and that enthusiasm spilled over into the final work on the program, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Opus 48 four-movement serenade in C major. If this music verges on the simplistic in its structural logic, that simplicity is balanced by a rhetoric that is predominantly upbeat and highly infectious. Only a heart of stone could avoid being drawn into the ebullience of it all; and this was definitely the selection in which one could appreciate the best advantages of the new “partnership” the NCCO players had established.

Sadly, the virtues of the second half of the program had to balance for the inadequacies of the first. Most disappointing was the concerto that Alan Fletcher wrote for Hope on a commission that NCCO shared with the Zurich Chamber Orchestra and the Savannah Festival (giving Hope the opportunity to play the piece in three different settings). Both Hope and Fletcher provided introductory remarks, but this was one of those unfortunate cases in which the verbal explanation turned out to be more compelling than the musical discourse itself. If “Orawa” demonstrated all of the positive virtues of effective partnership, Fletcher’s concerto came across as a tedious slog in which none of the participants conveyed very much to the listener about where everyone was going or why they were going there.

Unfortunately, tedium also ruled over the opening selection, Felix Mendelssohn’s Opus 20 octet in E-flat major, played by the full string ensemble. Hope made it a point to remind the audience that Mendelssohn was sixteen when he composed this piece; and there is no denying that, at that young age, the composer commanded a prodigious talent for conceiving themes and then putting all their notes in the right place. Unfortunately, last night’s performance never got beyond doing justice to all of the marks that Mendelssohn put on paper, meaning that the expressiveness of those notes came up in short supply. Thus, not only was the intimacy of exchange among eight voices lost by the magnitude of the ensemble but also the comparatively flat delivery made Mendelssohn’s youthful ebullience sound like another tedious slog.

Perhaps this was just a demonstration of the principle that partnerships are not made overnight. Establishing a new relationship takes time. Unfortunately, the next steps will have to wait until January, since Hope will not be present at the second concert in NCCO’s four-concert season. This is a partnership that is likely to require more patience than may have been anticipated when it was initiated.

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