New Century Chamber Orchestra went all in on theatrical impact with its Friday, Nov. 3 performance at San Francisco’s Cowell Theater. The program book could have been a playbill for a new musical, with a title, “Visitations,” and the seasonally apt image of a spooky gothic house outlined against a full autumn moon on the cover. Flickering electric candles massed across the stage apron and meandered up among the players on one side, conjuring Day of the Dead and All Souls Day thoughts. As the evening progressed, New Century took full advantage of the theater’s lighting grid, backdrop washed in a prism of ever-changing colors.
Presented on the statewide California Festival’s opening night, “Visitations” matched its visual flair with an ambitious program that bolstered the string ensemble’s customary forces with an eight-member choir, mezzo-soprano soloist, percussion, and charango (an Andean lute-like instrument with a vaguely ukulele aspect). The 10 musical selections ranged from meditative chant (excerpted from a liturgical work by Sergei Rachmaninoff) to the manic narrative of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice to a world-premiere commission and a full folk Mass.
Based on a New Mexican morality tale about a poor woodcutter whose greed gets the best of him when he defies “Lady Death,” Nicolás Lell Benavides’s Doña Sebastiana made an entrancing impression in its commissioned premiere. As it moved from layered sliding harmonies to brooding and pungent passages and sweet bird sounds, the story the composer had described in charming opening remarks took shape in a listener’s imagination.
Lightly percussive touches (the cellists slapping the bodies of their instruments) and a wittily abrupt ending made for an evocative, effectively concise work of musical storytelling. It all happened in eight minutes. The orchestra, which had sounded somewhat patchy earlier in the evening, gave a warm and responsive reading under Music Director Daniel Hope on lead violin.
In Ariel Ramírez’s 2010 Misa Criolla, Gabriel Navia rapidly strummed his charango in the faster sections while the choir delivered the Spanish text (a bit pallidly) and Hope embodied the lines normally sung by a tenor. This superb violinist’s limber, amber-hued voice made the work seem at times like a kind of folk-inflected violin concerto. An accessible, ingratiating mood prevailed, right down to the gentle rustle of maracas. Here and elsewhere in the program, Paul Bateman’s deft musical arrangements gave the orchestra access to pieces originally scored for larger and/or different ensembles.
Mezzo-soprano Kelley O’Connor figured importantly in the first half of the program, most notably in an aria from Heitor Villa-Lobos’s Baroque-inspired Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5. Her smoky voice, at once sultry and precise, was just right for the occasion. Peter Lieberson’s “Amor mío” (2005) was tenderly delivered, with lots of expressive dimension and some piercing emphases. The audience might have felt it more deeply had the house lights been turned up enough to facilitate following the Pablo Neruda texts in the program. But then again, atmospheric lighting was a prevailing principle of these “Visitations.”
Performing for the first time at the Cowell Theater, the New Century players didn’t always hit on all cylinders. Their accompaniment to O’Connor’s “Erlkönig” lacked the driving precision of Franz Schubert’s setting. Coordination with the choir wasn’t always clean.
Some missteps were almost inevitable in a concert that contained the spare arctic harmonies of Icelandic composer Hildur Guðnadóttir’s 2020 Fólk fær andlit (People get faces) and the madcap race of Paul Dukas’s 1897 Apprentice, made famous by Mickey Mouse in Fantasia and played here with cinematic if sometimes woozy verve.
Carlos Simon’s mordant Elegy: A Cry From the Grave (2015) and Arvo Pärt’s Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten (1977) offered a of pair mordant, pensive works in the program’s second half. The violas sounded especially ripe in Simon’s work as they led the way into the composer’s melodically focused meditation on Black men “murdered wrongfully by an oppressive power.”
Those candles arrayed across the stage guttered in mourning for an all-too-present Day of the Dead.