New Century Chamber Orchestra
New Century Chamber Orchestra | Credit: Scott Chernis

A giant white sperm whale in the concert hall is just one of the highlights of New Century Chamber Orchestra’s next season.

Music Director Daniel Hope is partnering with Bay Area organizations to ensure Moby-Dick’s spectacular breaching of the (imaginary) waters in Stanford’s Bing Concert Hall.

Continuing its 31-year-long record of imaginative programming, and its last six years with Hope, NCCO is once again preparing for a season few other orchestras can match, regardless of size. This is just the latest entry in NCCO’s adventurous history, from Stuart Canin as its first music director (1992–1999) to Krista Bennion Feeney (1999–2006), Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg (2008–2017), and now Hope.

Highlights of the 2023–2024 season include:

— Wu Tsang’s Moby-Dick: or, The Whale, a feature-length film presented by Stanford Live, in partnership with the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

— A multimedia collaboration with the SF Conservatory of Music, led by guest concertmaster Alexi Kenney

Kelley O’Connor
Mezzo-soprano Kelley O’Connor | Credit: Ben Dashwood

— Guest artists such as mezzo-soprano Kelley O’Connor, cellist Sterling Elliott, pianist Awadagin Pratt, and French trumpeter Lucienne Renaudin Vary (in her U.S. debut)

— A world-premiere commission from composer Nicolás Lell Benavides, Doña Sebastiana (Lady Death)

There will be five subscription weeks in venues across the Bay Area and appearances as part of the California Festival: A Celebration of New Music, at Bing Concert Hall via Stanford Live, and at the Green Music Center at Sonoma State University.

Hope describes the season as “featuring an array of dynamic and inspiring performances that showcase the unique sound and spirit of our ensemble ... embodying our commitment to bringing the finest musical experiences to audiences across the Bay Area. We look forward to sharing our passion for music and invite everyone to join us for an unforgettable year of music-making.”

Mourning the death of pianist Menahem Pressler last week, Hope spoke of having welcomed performing greats such as Pressler and cellist Lynn Harrell to New Century and of looking forward to “the upcoming season that features some of the finest musical talents of tomorrow, friends with whom I have collaborated in Europe but now welcome to the Bay Area.”

The season begins Nov. 2–5 with a program called “Visitations,” about “journeys into the beyond, of music about communing with spirits.”

Mezzo-soprano Kelley O’Connor and a chorus of eight voices join the orchestra in a candlelit setting to examine connections with the afterlife from various angles and through pieces such as Paul Dukas’ The Sorcerer’s Apprentice and Argentinian composer Ariel Ramírez’s Misa Criolla. Nicolás Lell Benavides’s new work, commissioned by New Century, is a piece for violin and strings that summons the spirit of Doña Sebastiana, Lady Death of the American Southwest.

Also on this program that’s notably generous, even for New Century: “Bogoroditse devo” (Rejoice, O Virgin) from Sergei Rachmaninoff’s All-Night Vigil; Hildur Guðnadóttir’s “Fólk fær andlit” (People get faces); “Ária (Cantilena)” from Heitor Villa-Lobos’s Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5; “Amor mío, si muero y tú no mueres” (My love, if I die and you don’t) from Peter Lieberson’s Neruda Songs; Schubert’s “Erlkönig” (The elf king), Op. 1, D.328; and Arvo Pärt’s Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten.

Daniel Hope
Daniel Hope with New Century Chamber Orchestra | Credit: Stefan Cohen

Hope told SF Classical Voice that he is “particularly excited to be performing the Misa Criolla by Ariel Ramírez. It’s an astonishing work which I have adored since I was a child, and this new version incorporates not only the voices of a select choir but also a solo violin. On the same program is the world premiere of a work by Nicolás Lell Benavides, a composer whom I much admire.”

The first performance in the series will be heard at Berkeley’s First Congregational Church on Nov. 2. The program then goes to the Cowell Theater at Fort Mason in San Francisco on Nov. 3 and 4 and then to St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Tiburon on Nov. 5.

On Nov. 8, New Century will join Stanford Live and SFMOMA in Bing Concert Hall to perform Moby-Dick; or, The Whale, a feature-length silent-film telling of Herman Melville’s novel, accompanied by live orchestra. The adaptation is written by Sophia Al-Maria and directed by MacArthur “genius” grant-winning filmmaker and visual artist Wu Tsang and the collective Moved by the Motion, with music by Caroline Shaw, Andrew Yee, and Asma Maroof.

Tsang said of the decision to present the story as a silent film: “With Moved by the Motion, we’re often working in that nonverbal space of affect or imagery: how to create a feeling or an atmosphere that people can experience when we don’t share a common language.”

Tsang continued: “And I guess in the specific instance of Moby-Dick, it seemed kind of perverse in a good way — to take the language away because the novel is so wordy.”

The film premiered in 2022 at the Schauspielhaus Zürich in Switzerland and had its North American premiere that same year at The Shed in New York. The narrative is interwoven with extracts from Melville’s sub-sub-librarian and tackles the novel’s subterranean currents, encountering the resistance of the ship’s hydrarchy, or organizational structure, and collectives of “mariners, renegades, and castaways,” as described by historian C.L.R. James.

Tosh Basco is a co-founder with Tsang of Moved by the Motion and among the creators of Moby-Dick. Born in California, she rose to prominence in the San Francisco drag scene during the 2010s. Her movement-based performances are known under the name of boychild.

The season continues Dec. 15–17 with “Christmas Ornaments,” a “Baroque-centric program” to usher in the holiday season. Trumpeter Lucienne Renaudin Vary makes her U.S. debut in Johann B.G. Neruda’s Trumpet Concerto. The program also includes Arcangelo Corelli’s “Christmas Concerto,” J.S. Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 3, Aaron Copland’s Quiet City, and a medley of popular holiday tunes.

New Century will join the students of the SF Conservatory of Music on Jan. 19–20, 2024, for “Sonic Ecosystems.” The concert is described as “a debut collaboration that harnesses the sights and sounds of nature in a unique multimedia production.”

Alexi Kenney
Violinist Alexi Kenney | Credit: Yang Bao

Violinist Alexi Kenney, a world-renowned musician whose early training was in the S.F. Bay Area, including a stint as concertmaster of the SF Symphony Youth Orchestra, will lead New Century and SFCM students. He will be taking audiences “on an immersive journey from the Puerto Rican beaches of Angélica Negrón’s Marejada to Joshua Tree National Park in selections from Gabriella Smith’s Desert Ecology and Aaron Jay Kernis’s Musica Celestis.” Kenney will be the soloist for Antonio Vivaldi’s Violin Concerto in D Major, RV 228, before concluding the program with George Enescu’s Octet.

Cellist Sterling Elliott will be the soloist March 8–10, 2024, for a program titled “Playing With Structure,” performing Haydn’s Cello Concerto No. 1 and “Prayer” from Ernest Bloch’s From Jewish Life. Also on the concert: Igor Stravinsky’s Pulcinella Suite and “Dance of the Furies” from Christoph Willibald Gluck’s Orpheus and Eurydice.

New Century concludes its season May 2–4, 2024, with “Love and War,” featuring a selection of 20th-century American works for strings, including Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson’s Grass: Poem for Piano, Strings, and Percussion, which features American pianist Awadagin Pratt, and Leonard Bernstein’s Serenade (After Plato’s Symposium).

Subscriptions, ranging from $54 to $315, are available by calling 415-357-1111, ext. 303, or visiting NCCO’s website.