The New Century Chamber Orchestra opened its season with a new concertmaster, violinist Daniel Hope. The match would rank a 97% on OkCupid, if the orchestra's profile had checked: handsome, passionate, artistic, good listener who is not afraid to take the lead. There is a warning flag regarding fear of commitment for a long term relationship: Hope's title is artistic partner, and he is not assuming the mantle of artistic director. That position is vacant and the orchestra is still scouring other potential matches. They're dating with Hope (lower case too as well), but it's not monogamous. Hope is still involved in previous relationships as music director of the Zurich Chamber Orchestra and associate artistic director of the Savannah Music Festival. Hope and the orchestra definitely have some lovely chemistry, which I observed on Sunday afternoon at the Bernie Osher JCC in San Rafael.
I knew of Hope, but read his profile, er, biographical notes in the program. He's no stranger to chamber music, having been part of the Beaux Arts trio for six years; he has played with most major orchestras, has commissioned over thirty works, and has personal relationships with quite an A-list of modern composers that includes Alfred Schnittke, Harrison Birtwistle, Sofia Gubaidulina, or György Kurtág. His recording of Max Richter's Vivaldi Recomposed has reached No. 1 in 22 countries and is, with 130,000 copies, one of the biggest recent classical hits. It is rather bittersweet praise, though, like being named employee of the month at Dairy Queen. Taylor Swift probably sells that many before breakfast. Hope's bio also mentions he has authored four best-selling books, with the Hasselhoff-ian qualifier: "published in Germany." He's a Brit, but he does live in Berlin.
The program in San Rafael (and in San Francisco and Berkeley earlier), in a charming auditorium with cabaret seating and friendly acoustics, bookended a world premiere commission of a violin concerto and a rare find, Orawa, by Wokciech Kilar, with two romantic evergreens. Kilar, who passed away in 2013, wrote the soundtrack for Bram Stoker's Dracula or The Pianist. He also wrote some concert music, including this rather enthralling piece. It opens with a minimalist aesthetic in the Philip Glass vein, and a slow propagation of short arpeggiated motifs. This builds up into a palimpsest of a folk dance recalling Béla Bartók. The two directions merged in an energetic rush and the orchestra gave it a potent forward momentum throughout. It's a great find.
The world premiere of the violin concerto by Alan Fletcher catered to the strengths of the orchestra. They conjured watery ripple textures in the outside movements, enhanced with an eerie breathiness. The second movement, based upon an old Swiss chorale, ran through variations that showed the range of the string ensemble: lush strings in one, pinpoint pizzicato in another, the sound of an organ in the next, or vehemently hacking away in yet another. Hope led the proceedings as the soloist, with a rich and colorful tone and he even took a few bar with his back to us to beat the time for an orchestra which prides itself on being conductor-less. Didn't he get the memo? He probably did not need to anyway, as the musicians listen to each other quite carefully. Even when Hope had returned in the ranks of the small orchestra in the other pieces, they have an uncanny synchronization no matter how fiendish the piece or the tempo.
Mendelssohn's Octet had be re-arranged for 18 musicians, a twist that brought out the symphonic writing of the piece. Mostly, each part seemed to have been tripled and the double bass added its depth here and there. The opening movement's first theme ends in a quicksilver fluttery flourish, and the agility of Hope combined with the synchronicity of the band were admirable. Even in the tutti bits, Hope's sound resonated brightly, standing out effortlessly. The fleet footed scherzo evoked mischievous fairies, with some eerie vibrant colors. The concert ended with Tchaikovsky's Serenade for Strings, a rich and lush dessert. Its music is as expansive as the piece ahead of it on the program, Orawa, was concentric. I could not help but admire the balance of the sound in the orchestra and wonder how can they achieve such precision without an external third party to hear it from the outside. Some theme is echoed back and forth between section, each phrased with just the proper intensity. The orchestra impressed with its serene composure in the most complex parts, or by its mimetic adjustments in the expressive rubatos of the waltz of the second movement. It was quite a feat, even though they should know their way through the Serenade quite well by now, it is such a mainstay of the chamber orchestra repertoire.
As an encore, a version of "America the Beautiful" provided an urgent and melancholy commentary on today's need for brotherhood, so sweetly that our neighbor had tears in her eyes.