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CHAMBER ORCHESTRA REVIEW

New Century Chamber Orchestra

Melody Moore

Axel Strauss

January 25, 2007

Melody Moore

Axel Strauss


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Captivating and Conductorless

By Lisa Hirsch

With the departure of Krista Bennion Feeney, its concertmaster and music director since 1999, the conductorless New Century Chamber Orchestra has begun a search for a violinist to be its new leader. Axel Strauss, professor of violin at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, led the first concert of 2007, heard on January 25 at St. John's Presbyterian Church in Berkeley.

If the other candidates for the position — Stephanie Chase, Geoff Nuttall, and Cho-Liang Lin — are as strong as Strauss, NCCO will have a happily difficult decision to make. The program ranged over three centuries of music, a typical span for NCCO, which in past concerts has delved into every possible corner of the repertory for small orchestra. Strauss led strongly and with utter confidence, and the orchestra responded with taut, precise, playing, near-perfect ensemble, and stupendous musicianship.

Georg Philipp Telemann has never achieved the stature that Bach and Handel have among music historians, or those composers' popularity among performers, though any young music student has probably played one or more of his concertos, suites, and duets. Nonetheless, he had a long, busy, and enormously prolific career, composing thousands of works, including some 600 orchestral suites.

Sweet Baroque suite

NCCO's program opened with his charming Overture des nations anciens et modernes, a suite comprised primarily of dances imitating the German, Swedish, and Danish musical styles of Telemann's day (modernes) and earlier (anciens). Evidently the moderns were perkier than the ancients, for the modern movements sparkled and raced along, while the ancients were more decorous. One movement featured a surprising solo for bass, played beautifully by principal bass Anthony Manzo. The mysteriously titled last movement, "Les vielles femmes" (The old women), trudged along slowly, with whining harmonies and jerky rhythms.

NCCO played the Telemann stylishly and impeccably, but what followed reached higher, with greatness succeeding excellence in both works and execution. Benjamin Britten was 26 when he composed Les Illuminations, a setting of Rimbaud's delirious prose-poems. The piece is written with a young man's emotional exuberance, but the layers of effects in the string orchestra take the kind of technical mastery that usually comes only with decades of compositional experience. Les Illuminations is most commonly performed with a full-size string orchestra; in the intimacy of the sanctuary at St. John's, NCCO's 19 players might as well have been 50, so overwhelming was the performance. The piece soars, glitters, buzzes, thrums like a guitar, and over it all, the soloist must also soar.

This the young soprano Melody Moore did, and in spades. She matched Britten and NCCO's wizardry note for note, phrase for phrase, executing every detail in the score with complete command and captivating the audience in the process. The opening song, "Fanfare," was just that — an announcement of her dominating presence, made with utter confidence and a perfectly controlled diminuendo at the end of the long phrase.

That was only the first demonstration of her skills. In "Antique," she sang both the difficult staccato arpeggios and long, swooping phrases accurately. Her very tone changed from song to song, sometimes veiled, sometimes cool, sometimes throbbing, always matching the tone of the poetry and music. In "Being Beauteous," for instance, she might as well have been a violin or a viola. I could complain only about her too-round French, which needed to be crisper and much more forward for the words to project correctly.

Death and the Maiden takes flight

After the intermission, Moore made a surprise reappearance to sing, touchingly, Schubert's song Death and the Maiden, accompanied by a violin, two violas, and a cello. This was a most appropriate prelude to the scheduled work, Mahler's arrangement for string orchestra of Schubert's D Minor String Quartet, D. 810, the slow movement of which is a set of variations on the song.

Mahler, a great orchestrator, seems to have made a hobby of arranging string quartets for larger ensembles: NCCO performed his version of Beethoven's Quartet No. 11 in F minor, Op. 95 last year. The Schubert, dark and brooding, is written on a heroic scale that makes it easily adapted for a larger ensemble. Mahler's version results in more varied and sometimes lusher textures, ranging from the addition of the basses to devices such as assigning some lines to a solo violin, dividing the first violins, and reducing the number of players to only four or five. The textures of the slow movement sometimes recalled those of Schubert's great Quintet in C Major, D.667, while the coda of the first movement achieved a marvelously hushed and covered sound without the use of mutes.

NCCO's performance came close to having the kind metrical flexibility that a quartet performance might have had, and the brilliance, sonic mass, and emotional depth added up to an overwhelming experience. This listener would have happily sat through the Britten and Schubert all over again, if the musicians could have stood it.

(Lisa Hirsch, a technical writer, studied music at Brandeis and SUNY/Stony Brook.)



©2007 Lisa Hirsch, all rights reserved