The New Millennium Chamber Orchestra presented a concert of music relating to childhood in San Mateo, June 1, and at the First Presbyterian Church in Palo Alto, where I heard it Sunday, June 2.
Music director James Richard Frieman conducted. To fill the program, thoughts turned to French music, specifically to a turn-of-the-20th-century singer named Emma Bardac and her children.
Bardac was at one time the mistress of the elegant composer Gabriel Fauré. To entertain her small daughter, nicknamed Dolly, Fauré wrote a collection of piano pieces which became called the “Dolly Suite.” Some years later, after her affair with Fauré had ended, Bardac eloped with her son’s piano teacher, Claude Debussy. They had their own daughter and got married, in that order. To entertain the girl, nicknamed Chou-chou, Debussy wrote a collection of piano pieces called “The Children’s Corner Suite.”
It’s remarkable that these pieces — all depicting toys or pets or other things that might attract the attention of a small girl, and all orchestrated in later years by friends of each composer — were inspired by a pair of half-sisters. But a third great French children’s suite from that period has nothing to do with Emma Bardac. This is Maurice Ravel’s “Ma mère l’Oye” or “Mother Goose Suite,” also originally written for piano but this time orchestrated by the composer himself.
The contents of all three works are charming, colorful and tuneful pieces, delightful to hear even in succession. In the first two, the liveliest pieces — Fauré’s Spanish dance and Debussy’s famous “Golliwogg’s Cakewalk” — were the best in this performance, achieving the fluent energetic rhythms that the composers wanted. There was a heartiness and bold outline to the playing which sometimes recalled the style of Arthur Sullivan.
The Ravel was different. This sounded more purely French in this performance. Despite a necessity to restart one movement, the atmospheric sound quality throughout the varied suite was awesomely evocative and beautiful, some of the finest work this volunteer orchestra has ever done.
A couple other pieces filled out the program. One with a children’s theme was the well-known 18th-century “Toy Symphony.” This uncredited work has been attributed to everybody and his brother (literally: both Joseph Haydn and his brother Michael are among the candidates), but there’s no settled answer as to who composed it and not much need for one. The orchestra gave energy and enthusiasm to what is, its use of toy instruments apart, a dull and repetitive work. As Frieman remarked, “The novelty wears off quickly.” He and many of the musicians donned children’s party hats for this piece. Those playing the various bird call devices, rattle and toy trumpet (played by a muted regular trumpet) popped up to stand for each solo.
Lastly, pianist Karina Tseng, 17, took the stage. This Carlmont High School junior is this year’s winner of the orchestra’s Young Artists Concerto Competition. Her work was the first movement of the Piano Concerto No. 2 by Camille Saint-Saëns. She played with impressive fluency and character, managing to force a wide variety of tone colors, from firm and grand to light and transparent, onto the tinkly off-brand baby grand piano she was assigned to play. I only regret that the rest of the concerto was not on the program. The dramatic yet frilly trills in the finale could have been further demonstration of the excellence of Tseng’s pianism.