New Century Chamber Orchestra Makes the Most of Minimalism

Steven Winn on May 22, 2018
New Century Chamber Orchestra | Credit: Matthew Washburn

The New Century Chamber Orchestra held the big news for last in their May 17-20 concerts, placing the West Coast premiere of Philip Glass’s Piano Concerto No. 3 at the end of the program. But in several ways the concert anticipated that work’s spacious, tile-like patterning well before it arrived.

Both Bryce David Dessner’s Aheym (2009) and Francesco Geminiani’s Concerto Grosso No. 12, “La Folia” (1726) demonstrated the repetition and expansion of compact musical cells that are such a distinctive Glass watermark. By the time the piano concerto began, listeners had been primed, consciously or not, for the hypnotic, time-altering experience of hearing something repeated, reworked, revisited, and reprised over and over.

That was especially true in the long final movement of the Glass piece. Played with magisterial calm by Simone Dinnerstein on Saturday night at Herbst Theatre, the solo piano part used an oscillating, open-fifth ground bass as the sustained foundation for the chiming chords and descending figures sounded in right hand crossovers in the deepest reaches of the instrument.   The effect, with the NCCO strings sighing and gently surging along in sympathy, was one of sublime consolation. Glass has cited the Estonian minimalist Arvo Pärt as an inspiration.

Soloist in the West Coast premiere of Philip Glass’s Third Piano Concerto, Simone Dinnerstein | Credit: Lisa Marie Mazzucco

Written in an expressly romantic vein, the 35-minute concerto was lovely throughout, if not consistently engaging. The first of its three movements opened with a chordal, anthem-like solo piano subject. When the orchestra joined in, it did so in delicate jubilation that grew more expansive.

Arpeggiated figures, their aspirational reach reminiscent of Schumann’s Op. 17 Fantasia, were a consistent talking point between the soloist and ensemble. Those conversations lost focus at times, as the movement worked its way back to the opening theme without having made a much deeper case for it. Off-the-beat rhythms, vaguely Latin at times, gave way to some especially lush string passages in the second of the concerto’s three movements. A lively, singing duet for piano and cello was a high point. Once again, the music seemed to lose momentum and purpose as the movement wound to an end.

Dinnerstein, who played with her back facing the standing string orchestra, made her liquid tone and deliberate rhythmic pulse the swimming current of the piece. The strings, often in a subordinate role, were appropriately deferential. In that long and sumptuous third movement, a sweet, patient accord prevailed.

Bach’s Keyboard Concerto No. 7 in G Minor, BWV 1058, which immediately preceded the Glass, showed off Dinnerstein’s command in a different vein. Her phrasing was crisp and shapely, shading the fleet outer movements especially with pert character and grace.

Guest concertmaster for these concerts, Zachary De Pue

With Zachary De Pue as guest concertmaster, the NCCO fired their way through Aheym (“homeward” in Yiddish) in scintillating fashion. Originally written for the Kronos Quartet, the piece drives forward on the motivic motor of rapid, tightly wrought phrases. More rhythmic than melodic, they seemed to pound themselves into shards of textural variations — a dry attack here, some eerie harmonics there. In its Bolero-like fixation, Dessner’s exciting piece offered a terse but pointed foreshadowing of Glass’s grand-scale exploration of how much can be made of so seemingly little. The musicians were on the case throughout here, every entrance an arresting exclamation.

The program opened with Henry Purcell’s Chacony in G Minor, in an arrangement by Benjamin Britten. The result was heavy and soupy, as if Purcell’s 17th-century poise had been run through a Dvořák machine.

Based on Arcangelo Corelli’s well-known “Folia” violin sonata, the Geminiani concerto grosso set things to right as the short first half of the concert came to a close. By turns tender, tart, and yieldingly sensual, the variations came off here in a gratifying range of musical moods and effects. Once again repetition proved to be anything but redundant. The sense of driving movement led to an exciting, brawny finish.

Sometimes going in circles is the best way to travel.