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New Century Chamber Orchestra Soars with Bermel’s Murmurations

June 1, 2015

San Francisco Conservatory of Music

New Century Chamber Orchestra. (Photo: Kristen Loken)

“Folks in the States tend to like to shoot them, because they are a nuisance. But… they’re also incredibly beautiful,” composer Derek Bermel says. He was not referring, jokingly, to accordionists or bagpipers, but rather, describing starlings, whose flocking movements were the inspiration for his 2015 work Murmurations. The piece received its West Coast premiere this week by the New Century Chamber Orchestra at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, rounding out a program of Stravinsky and Schubert.

Grammy-nominated composer Bermel lists among his influences Jackson 5, Bartók, and a diverse range of international musical cultures. He has received commissions from the Pittsburgh and Saint Louis Symphonies, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and eighth blackbird, among other groups. Bermel came to New Century as its 2014–15 Featured Resident Composer; Jennifer Higdon will be in residence next season.

Trills are an obvious compositional choice for the evocation of fluttering birds, but Bermel employs them with novelty in the first movement of Murmurations. The individual sections’ swooping scales seamlessly fit together, and principal second violinist Candace Guirao played beautifully in an extended duet with Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, who is also the music director and concertmaster of the conductorless ensemble.

The second movement is an impressionistic lullaby that evokes the birds’ soaring with the wind. Despite the orchestra’s lush, warm sound, the movement — though pleasant — didn’t leave a strong impression. Despite the orchestra’s lush, warm sound, the movement — though pleasant — didn’t leave a strong impression.

Bermel’s imaginative harmonic progressions and shifting accent patterns elevate the seemingly simple finale — a perpetual motion in the minimalist style — to a level of sophistication. Paired with New Century’s first-rate ensemble playing, the movement was the most compelling part of the piece. Coordinating even the most minute details of bowing articulations and timbres, the group sounded as one.

The orchestra’s performance of Stravinsky’s Suite Italienne seemed to take cues from the work’s convoluted history. The suite, arranged by the composer for violin and piano, includes five of the original 21 movements of Pulcinella (1919–20), his ballet after music that was at the time attributed to Giovanni Battista Pergolesi. Of course, we now know that much of the ballet’s music is by even lesser-known composers, such as Domenico Gallo and Carlo Ignazio Monza. New Century played Albert Markov’s arrangement of Suite Italienne for string orchestra, a product that is two arrangements removed from the original ballet.

The reduced string orchestra, more than the 36-person ensemble required by Stravinsky’s original ballet score, resembles the chamber groups Pergolesi and his contemporaries would have heard. In fact, in many passages New Century fully adopted a Classical style, using particularly light and fast bow strokes in the Serenata. But this characterization was at odds with Salerno-Sonnenberg’s throbbing vibrato and Markov’s romantically coloristic orchestration. Although the ensemble was impressively tight, the overall effect was disorienting.

In Gustav Mahler’s time, it was common practice to arrange songs and chamber music for full orchestra. It’s not hard to understand why he was taken with Schubert’s Death and the Maiden Quartet, an intensely dramatic piece. But he completed an arrangement only of the second movement before growing busy with his Third Symphony. Only in 1984 — 160 years after the quartet was written — did musicologists complete the arrangement, working from Mahler’s annotated score.

Unfortunately, adding so many players ultimately dilutes the interpretation: It’s difficult enough to get a quartet to play with a unified sound, let alone a string orchestra. Many of the virtuosic first violin passages are unrewarding when played en masse. Particularly in the first movement, New Century’s performance was noncommittal.

Yet, the fourth movement — a macabre tarantella — had great character and vibrancy. Throughout the evening the lower strings were outstanding, and acting principal bassist Paul DeNola added punch to every passage he played.

Rebecca Wishnia recently earned her master’s degree in violin from UC Santa Cruz, where she studied with Roy Malan. A passionate chamber musician, she has performed in a variety of ensembles around the Bay Area, in addition to studying and teaching chamber repertoire at festivals each summer.