Sometimes your reputation precedes you. With four concerts around the Bay Area this weekend, the New Century Chamber Orchestra opened its 2018-19 season — the first in which violinist Daniel Hope is officially the group’s music director — with Hope himself conspicuously absent. But the group was still in prestigiously dexterous hands: On Saturday evening at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, guest concertmaster Anthony Marwood led the ensemble and performed two stunningly uncommon concertos.
Marwood introduced the program by relating that, after thieves broke into her home and stole her viola, Sally Beamish moved to Scotland and focused full-time on composing. Her three-movement Seavaigers was inspired by both the sea and the folk music there. Although it was originally written for Scottish fiddle and harp soloists, James Crabb, an accordionist, performed with Marwood on Saturday. Beamish left some of the solo passages free-form, and Crabb and Marwood were worthy collaborators indeed.
The first movement, “Storm,” does not portray a storm at sea. It opened with sustained, suspenseful strings and a gorgeous violin solo — depicting, perhaps, the start of a fateful day. Fiddle-like music followed, and the two soloists traded melodic motifs with both each other and the orchestra. In the next movement, familiar melodic material was transformed into a poignant lament. The mood changed again in the rhythmic finale, which the original harpist described as an exhilarated homecoming.
Given the unusual combination of violin and accordion as well as the folk-inspired music, Seavaigers sounds unique. After this piece, Dvořák’s charming Serenade for Strings firmly re-rooted the audience in the more traditional realm of classical music. Even though Dvořák was also influenced by folk music, and even though he wrote this Serenade in the late 19th century, to me its five movements sound almost classically balanced.
Marwood, who stood center stage for Seavaigers, joined the 16-member orchestra as concertmaster for Dvořák’s work. The graceful first movement reminded me of music you might whistle while enjoying a relaxed summertime stroll. The ensuing waltz had a dramatic final cadence. Then, after a short Scherzo movement, a lovely Larghetto followed. But with the stormy finale, Dvořák — and New Century — saved the best for last.
After intermission, Marwood and the ensemble played a single-movement work for solo violin and orchestra by a Latvian-born composer, Pēteris Vasks. Another Latvian, violinist Gidon Kremer, premiered it in 1997. According to Vasks, Distant Light is “nostalgia with a touch of tragedy — childhood memories, but also the glittering stars millions of light years away.” On Saturday, it was so achingly beautiful that I consciously had to resist being moved to tears.
It took a while to settle in to this 30-minute piece: It seems amorphous, and also incorporates what Vasks calls “aleatoric chaos,” or elements of chance governing certain aspects of the music. It began with Marwood glissando-ing up to sustained pitches, which were sometimes fractured by tremolos. They were so stratospheric that they were almost painful to listen to, like looking at attention-grabbing shards of blinding light. Eventually and repeatedly, the music developed into soaring, impassioned violin cadenzas. But this music is sad; even a rhythmic section evoking folk dance somehow had an intangible, doleful weight. The dancelike section concluded with a sudden change back to sustained strings, which led to another wailing cadenza. The ending, by contrast, sounded resigned, with very soft, layered strings.
From Dvořák’s pleasing Serenade to these two fascinating concertos, New Century’s new season is off to a solid start. Surely Hope will perform at subsequent concerts. But Marwood said San Francisco is one of his favorite cities — and especially after Saturday’s performance, I want him to visit again soon.