New Century premiere in Berkeley

Of shadows and shenanigans

A program of the elegiac and the electric filled Berkeley’s First Congregational Church last Friday, November 22. Celebrated violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg led the New Century Chamber Orchestra in their fall concert series, “Legacies and Concertos,” and soloed in two dramatic works.

This was the culmination of Michael Daugherty’s residency as composer, featuring the premiere of his Fallingwater for Solo Violin and Strings. It was also a second opportunity to hear Clarice Assad’s remarkable “Dreamscapes,” which she wrote for the New Century four years ago.

The day of the concert, November 22, was the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, and so they began in a somber vein with Elegy, written by Samuel Jones and performed three weeks after that fatal day. Elegy, like Barber’s famous Adagio for Strings, has a slow infrastructure, faltering steps, and harmonies that change from major to minor in the middle of the chord.

Which raised an interesting question. How is it that grief is so recognizable in music? Jones’ answer also included a slow breath-like articulation, like the ribs of some beached leviathan, which bypassed a tempo of joy for that of sighs. And the even steps of his descents carried us down scales, but never quite landed, the epitome of incompletion. Through it all, intense yet indirect harmonies pointed us towards the inwardness of sorrow.

It was a perfect vehicle for this ensemble, which polished each moment.

This was paired by Tchaikovsky’s Andante Cantabile, written as a young man with simplicity and clarity of spirit. The arrangement we heard was the solo cello and strings version, movingly played by Susan Babini. Her deep vibrato enriched the upper register, delivering an expressive Russian sound, a modal lullaby.

Tchaikovsky’s young protégé, Anton Arensky, wrote Variations on a Theme by Tchaikovsky as a requiem for his mentor, rounding out the first half with a long series of variations, from dignified theme to energetic romp, and showing off the talent of the New Century.

And then the fun! We were re-introduced to Clarice Assad’s formidable Dreamscape: Fantasia for Strings and Solo, which she wrote when she was composer-in-residence for the NCCO. It was a star vehicle for Salerno-Sonnenberg, but the ensemble writing is also gorgeous and packs a hefty emotional punch.

Based on notes from her own dream journal, Assad brought out the tension between dreamer and dream. The ensemble, representing a Jungian dream field, opened. These were the shifting grounds of metaphor, with slurring notes and abrupt thickets of intervals. Then Salerno-Sonnenberg’s solo violin, which signified the lucid dreamer, battled the uncertain weave of dream—and the other strings—with a punishing solo. She was near dancing as she manifested the cross-rhythms in her body.

After uncertainty came a region of drama and contrast, nightmare and its bitter power, demanding music that rose to a cliff and then paused. The solo violin returned on high thin notes, then reprised the opening with its lyrical stairway of odd intervals. This work truly rides a creative edge, and will hopefully find its way into the standard repertoire.

Daugherty, once Assad’s mentor, ended the evening with a concerto of even more difficulty, and it would be hard to imagine any other soloist. Fallingwater, a tribute to architect Frank Lloyd Wright, was composed of four movements, each pointing to one of his distinct works. The placid Taliesin, with liquid pizzicatos denoting night rains, gave way to the dramatic Fallingwater, a scherzo movement with a hugely tight sound. And then a deeply soulful movement, the Unity Temple of Chicago. Here was no artifice, but just lovely melody and deep heart beat, shimmering into thin air.

Their finale, reprising the curving vault of the Guggenheim, was a hugely virtuosic display of jazzy phrases. As for the test of time, this is Daugherty’s signature, descriptive language and colorful orchestration, though few violinists will be equal to its challenges.

—Adam Broner

Photo, below, of members of the New Century Chamber Orchestra; photo by Matthew Washburn.

NCCO by Matthew Washburn