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Close Examination

November 20, 2007

The New Century Chamber Orchestra's search for a new music director has had the side benefit of allowing its audiences to hear not just a slew of interesting violinist/leaders, but also the diversity of the orchestra’s musical personality. Last Wednesday at San Rafael's Osher Marin Jewish Community Center, the leader-of-the-month was the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra's Margaret Batjer. Batjer is not, as I understand it, in the running for the directorship (the results of the search are to be announced on November 29). But in her hands the New Century players took on yet another character, one the eventual new director would be well-advised to recognize and nurture.
Batjer's program was unusually tight in focus for NCCO, sticking to the first three-quarters of the 18th century. For me, the concentration was entirely welcome, but the orchestra itself seemed almost embarrassed by it. Paula Gambs' "Message From the President" in the program booklet called the concert a journey "through more than 150 years of the world's most wonderful music." Batjer herself referred to a 100 years' span, but 50 is more like it — from Johann Sebastian Bach's Fourth Brandenburg Concerto (1721) to one of his son Carl Philipp Emanuel's "Hamburg sinfonias" (1773). This was a concert covering a fairly narrow band of music history, and all the better for it.

The NCCO has always seemed to me a mite uncomfortable with the fact that a good chunk of any string orchestra's first-class repertoire lies in the Baroque. It does regularly program Baroque music, but doesn't generally sound at home doing it, and its recent approaches have varied from stilted, tiptoeing "correctness" to hearty, full-blown Romanticism, and everything in between. Under Batjer, the players achieved an accommodation with the style that was more convincing than I have heard from them before.
Connecting the Dots, Getting Into the Flow
The signature qualities of the playing were incisiveness, wit, clarity, and a willingness to dig in with the bow to the point of grittiness. Welcome, too, was the orchestra's legato. One of the most annoying tics of Baroque style as persistently misunderstood by modern-style string players is a perverse notion that two notes played with separate bowstrokes should always have a space between them. Somewhere along the line, a lot of modern players got the idea that legato in Baroque music is unstylishly romantic. Where this mistake came from I don't know — certainly not from period-style string players, who don't play like that and, so far as I know, never did — but it's distressingly common still.

The NCCO on Wednesday was altogether free of that mannerism. It was lovely to hear the fourth-movement aria of Handel's Concerto grosso Op. 6/11 phrased with such flowing, seamless naturalness. In fact, the Handel was the peak of the program, a graceful, alert, zippy performance, with a kind of ever-replenished effervescence. Batjer in her solos ran lightly and easily, taking evident joy in the music's motion. The NCCO's Candace Guirao (principal second violin, breaking out her Baroque-era bow for the occasion) and Robin Bonnell (principal cello) responded in kind.

The Geminiani work, a concerto grosso transcription of Corelli's Violin Sonata in D Minor, Op. 5/1, was nearly as fine. The slow movements of Geminiani's Corelli transcriptions present an interpretive problem. In the sonatas, the violin line is skeletal in the extreme, and the violinist was expected to provide rather spectacular embellishments. (Many early editions provided samples of the sort of thing intended, including one whose set of ornaments purports to be the composer's own.) What do you do when such a piece is expanded to a full string section?

The NCCO played the first phrase of the concerto's opening movement absolutely bare, which I took as a bad sign. I ought not to have worried. In subsequent phrases, Batjer elaborated the line with increasing daring and imagination. She never overdid it, and contrived, if that's possible, to sound completely free of contrivance. An awful lot of modern-style players embellish with all the spontaneity and naturalness of after-dinner speechmakers. Either it's all too clear that the player has laboriously composed each minute deviation from the printed text, or (worse) you find yourself hoping that what you just heard was done extemporaneously, because the thought of its having been worked out beforehand is too dreadful to contemplate.

Batjer’s embellishments were at once thoughtful enough to have been planned and so effortless as to make you sure they weren’t. Both here and in the Handel and Bach works (where her ornamentation was sparser, but just as fine), she set an example that any number of modern-style players — and not a few "period" ones, for that matter — would do well to follow.
Youthful Haydn Symphony Played With Zest
The New Century doesn't ordinarily include wind players, except as occasional soloists, so Haydn's Symphony No. 8 in G Major ("Le Soir") was a distinct departure for the ensemble. I can't see them making a habit of it — once you open the door to the entire chamber-orchestra repertoire, where do you stop? — but this performance was a terrific success, crisp and virtuosic and altogether a great, gleeful romp.

The piece is almost a miniature concerto for orchestra, with prominent solos not just from the winds but from two violins, cello (Bonnell, enviably easy of tone but not quite secure of pitch), and bass (Anthony Manzo, delightfully deadpan). The guest winds played standing, as NCCO usually does, and being behind the strings without benefit of risers put them at something of an acoustical disadvantage. Nonetheless they put out a splendid sound. Flutist Emma Moon's lightning flashed particularly brilliantly in the symphony's thunderstorm-finale.

The C.P.E. Bach Sinfonia in E Major, Wq. 182/6, is a tight little firecracker of a piece, packed with dynamic, harmonic, and rhythmic shocks that scarcely have time to clear before the next one arrives. It's the sort of work that is as raw meat to the more abrasive kind of period-style orchestra. The NCCO did a creditable job with it, not stinting the dynamic range and registering the music's wilder turns well, but it still retained too much good breeding to do the thing full justice.

The Fourth Brandenburg Concerto, too, was a bit of a letdown after the excellence of the Handel and Haydn. For the first and only time Wednesday night, there was some of that old, mincing "be careful, everyone, it's Baroque" manner in evidence. Not from Batjer, I hasten to add, whose account of the solo part was invigoratingly gutsy (and, in the swirling rapid passages in the outer movements, phenomenally distinct). But the orchestra was often self-consciously delicate, particularly in the inner parts. Possibly someone was worried about overbalancing the flutes that here substituted for Bach's recorders. The actual balance problem, in any case, was quite the other way, with the flutes far too prominent relative to the string body.

All in all, though, this concert showed what the NCCO can do with 18th-century music when the players put their minds to it and when the leader has so sure a command of the style. We can only hope that whoever emerges as the ensemble's new leader can do as well.

Michelle Dulak Thomson is a violinist and violist who has written about music for Strings, Stagebill, Early Music America, and The New York Times.