The New Millennium Chamber Orchestra put on some boldly imaginative programming for its concerts last weekend. I heard the performance on Sunday, May 8, at the First Presbyterian Church in Palo Alto. The lineup included three women composers.
Music director Jenny Beyer Cornell cited a proverb that says “Women give birth to men and men give birth to art” and replied, “We’ll see about that.”
Two of the women composers are living and one was of the past. The past composer was Emilie Mayer, a German Romantic who is one of numerous 19th-century women composers whose complete absence from the standard repertoire is something of a puzzle. Her Faust Overture, inspired by Goethe’s play, compares favorably to the more turgid work of the same title by Richard Wagner, who was actually an admirer of Mayer’s music. Beginning with a long, dark-toned introduction, Mayer’s Faust continues with an arpeggio-laden main theme that had a strong rhythmic drive in this performance. A serene ending implies redemption for the character Gretchen at least.
The orchestra has played Adrienne Albert’s Courage before. It’s a short piece with a broad major-mode approach. It comes across less as the defiance of illness that Albert wrote it for than as a celebration of human achievement, in the style of music for films about the space program.
The third piece by a woman had an unusual instrumentation for an orchestral concert. Spirals by the Icelandic composer María Huld Markan Sigfúsdóttir is a chamber work for string trio and electronics. The live performers were the orchestra’s principals, concertmaster Colyn Fischer, violist Silvio Rocha and cellist Natsumi Nakamura.
Spirals is an eerie but hauntingly beautiful work of soundscape in which the strings play long held notes with ghostly bits of pizzicato, while the electronic track offers drone chords and soft crackling sounds. The composer originally wrote this for Baroque instruments. These concerts were the world premiere of a revised version for modern instruments at modern concert pitch, with the electronic track revised to fit.
It worked well in the company of one of the program’s two works by male composers, Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten by the Estonian Arvo Pärt. This 1977 classic is a simply-conceived but riveting concoction of simple tonic descending string lines, where Spirals’ lines are mostly rising. The one other instrument playing is an orchestral bell hit periodically throughout the piece.
At the end of Cantus, the strings suddenly cut out, while the sound of the previously-hit bell suddenly reverberates in the silence. This worked ideally in this performance — the bell was conspicuously loud — though for full effect Cantus requires careful balancing among the string sections, which was difficult to achieve here.
The concert concluded with an old favorite, Sergei Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony. Though Prokofiev was Russian in every other respect, he can be claimed as Ukrainian because he happened to be born within the present-day borders of that republic. In the current circumstances, which also called for the concert to open with the Ukrainian national anthem, why not do so? And so he was thus identified.
The Classical Symphony was Prokofiev’s light-hearted experiment in imagining what kind of music the 18th-century Joseph Haydn might have written if transported to the early 20th. It’s full of quips and tricks requiring supple fingering from all the players, so this volunteer group met that challenge by taking the piece slow and easy. It was a pleasing and genteel performance, simplified by omitting the customary first movement exposition repeat.
Welcome to the discussion.
Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
PLEASE TURN OFF YOUR CAPS LOCK.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.