September 18, 2012

Young Britten, Mature Bartók Honored at NCCO Opener

New Century Chamber Orchestra
By Jeff Dunn

Melody MooreThe New Century Chamber Orchestra celebrated Benjamin Britten’s birth centennial 26 months early with two spring-chicken works that bookended a more muttony masterpiece by Béla Bartók. The two meatiest numbers, the Englishman’s Les Illuminations and the Hungarian’s Divertimento, were written within two months of each other in 1939. What a contest it would be to determine which was best — the 25-year-old tyro’s or the 58-year-old master’s! If we could empanel a jury to decide, I say 3-to-1 it would be hung, especially the way the NCCO played the contenders, highlighting their best aspects.

The young Britten was a genius, with 737 works to his credit by the time he was 16. After a half-hour delay to wait for the hall to clear (someone cluelessly scheduled in the Menlo-Atherton High School Center for Performing Arts a totally unrelated lecture and book-signing to start only an hour earlier), the concert got under way with Britten’s Simple Symphony. Britten cleverly assembled his juvenilia into this delight in 1934 when he was all of 20, with a foot-tapping “Playful Pizzicato” and a surreptitiously deep “Sentimental Saraband,” perfectly executed by the ensemble. The piece even sports expert motivic development that the conservatory-trained Bartók would have admired.

Love of life permeates the early music of Britten, compared to the somber experience of Bartók.

Despite its title, there’s little light entertainment to be had in the Divertimento. The piece abounds in fascinating structures and developments in an ever-changing texture and mood. The second movement presents the greatest spiritual challenge: to build intermittently, but inexorably, to an extreme intensity at its climax. To this end, the ensemble was only moderately successful. The proscenium stage may have had something to do with deintensification, with some of the sound being sucked up into its rafters, but I’m not yet familiar enough with the vagaries of the venue to say for sure. The third movement, though, was a complete pleasure.

Nadja Salerno SonnenbergAfter intermission, the concert concluded with Britten’s setting of eight of Arthur Rimbaud’s 42 Illuminations. Soprano Melody Moore provided a powerful and expressive interpretation of the enigmatic, terse, yet sumptuous texts. Her voice was strong in all points of the range, her gestures flowing seamlessly while amplifying the exquisite, if disparate and intoxicated, thoughts captured by the poet. Typical of her virtuosity was her handling of the entire content of the second poem, “Sentence,” which soars and plummets to the last word, “dance”:

I have stretched ropes from steeple to steeple; garlands from window to window; golden chains from star to star, and I dance.

The NCCO members, with Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, their music director, firmly in the driver’s seat, performed magnificently throughout the program. Especially noteworthy was the contribution of Acting Principal Cellist Michelle Djokic, whose passionate renditions and joy in music-making were infectious.

Soprano Melody Moore provided a powerful and expressive interpretation of the enigmatic, terse, yet sumptuous texts.

As to the program itself, it’s puzzling that Simple Symphony was chosen, audience-friendly as it was, when the more substantial Variations on a Theme by Frank Bridge or the Prelude and Fugue for 18 Strings could have been included. They could have given Bartók a run for the money for the “Beethoven Prize,” say. Still, Illuminations contains gems of orchestration that would have impressed Bartók, the “night-music” magician of Music for Percussion, Strings, and Celeste. The slides in harmonics that conclude the first movement of the song cycle are breathtaking in their originality.

Love of life permeates the early music of Britten, compared to the somber experience of Bartók (though Divertimento does have a great dash of Viennese humor near the end). The conclusion of a life’s work, only seven years away for Bartók and 37 for Britten, brought profound depth to the music of both men. We poor mortals are forever indebted to them, win or lose.

Jeff Dunn is a freelance critic with a B.A. in music and a Ph.D. in geologic education. A composer of piano and vocal music, he is a member of the National Association of Composers, USA, a former president of Composers, Inc., and has served on the Board of New Music Bay Area. A photomontage enthusiast, he illustrates his own reviews.