Featured composer enlivens New Century: Derek Bermel brings his clarinet and more to the MidPeninsula

Derek Bermel

The New Century Chamber Orchestra introduced MidPeninsula audiences to its new “featured composer” for the upcoming season, Derek Bermel, at Palo Alto’s First United Methodist Church last Friday.

Bermel, 47, is from New York and composes like a New Yorker. His music is energetic and often brash and bouncy. He plays the clarinet, and did so in two of his three pieces played at the concert. The clarinet is a versatile instrument, suited for sudden leaps and turns and wails.

Bermel did a lot of that in his first piece, “A Short History of the Universe,” inspired by physics lectures he heard while artist in residence at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. It’s a quintet for clarinet and strings, which he performed with the first-chair players of the orchestra.

There isn’t much physics to be heard in this work: no minimalist time-shifting beat patterns or the like. Instead, the clarinet pierced and chuckled and bent the pitches of notes. A rocking rhythm in the strings in the slow movement, topped with a matching clarinet melody, was the best part. A lively dance in the finale alternated with a hymn for strings which the clarinet interrupted with little scrawls. Then the violins and clarinet played the hymn while the lower strings gave the scrawls.

Another dance appeared in a movement from Bermel’s “Canzonas Americanas.” NCCO’s musical director and concertmaster, Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, played a repeating Brazilian chôros melody while Bermel’s clarinet gave soft harmonic support.

Apologies to Bermel’s clarinet, but his best work was the one he didn’t play in. “Oct Up” for strings and gently shaken percussion has the minimalist style, and the quiet hesitancy, missing from “A Short History.” With some strings holding notes and others pulsing quietly beneath them, rhythms and harmonies shifting in a way reminiscent of Philip Glass, it was captivating and charming.

It made a good match for “Fratres” by Arvo Pärt, which was played immediately before it. “Fratres,” in its string orchestra version, is a simple yet riveting hymn-like work in a hushed and mysterious tone, with strings playing iterations of a rhythmically complex phrase, each phrase separated by stealthy thumps from percussion.

The second half of the concert was more light-hearted. As a string orchestra with percussion, NCCO finds some repertoire off limits, unless someone arranges the music for it. Bizet’s opera “Carmen” comes already arranged. In 1967, Russian composer Rodion Shchedrin arranged music from “Carmen” into a suite for strings and percussion. The Soviet government was shocked by Shchedrin’s irreverence, and he found it hard to get the work staged as the ballet he intended. But it came to concert halls, and NCCO has played it before.

The music is packed with famous melodies, but they’re always full of surprises. To hear fragments of the “Habanera” turned into a hushed prelude for bells, or the “Toreador’s Song” with just the accompaniment, the melody having suddenly cut out, is to have “Carmen” thrown completely off balance. It’s one of the cleverest musical spoofs ever written.

NCCO is not a silly orchestra, though, and this performance took the work seriously. The lively parts were presented earnestly, and the slow and serious sections with a somber intensity and power befitting an orchestra thrice its size.

Still, it was nothing less than amusing watching gallant percussionists Galen Lemmon and Artie Storch darting around amidst the huge battery of instruments occupying the back of the stage.

NCCO’s next local concert will be Friday, Dec. 19, in a holiday program with orchestral works by Vivaldi, Corelli and Bach, with choruses and carols sung by the San Francisco Girls Chorus. Derek Bermel makes his reappearance with a newly-commissioned work on Friday, May 29.

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