New Millennium takes on Copland, Barber: Chamber orchestra celebrates the greats of the 20th-century

Colyn Fischer, who teaches music at Central Middle School in San Carlos, was the soloist for Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto.

The New Millennium Chamber Orchestra celebrated two of the greatest 20th-century American composers, Aaron Copland and Samuel Barber, with concerts this past weekend featuring lyrical performances of their best concertos. I attended Saturday afternoon’s performance at the First Presbyterian Church of Palo Alto, conducted by James Richard Frieman.

The key to good concerto performances is to get good soloists, and this concert had them. Rachel Dusenbury played solo in Copland’s Clarinet Concerto. This work comes in two parts: a slow, melodic first half in the style of Copland’s pastoral landscapes, followed by a fast jazzy section inspired by the work of the clarinetist who commissioned the piece, Benny Goodman.

The hefty, warm tone of Dusenbury’s clarinet gave great beauty to the first half. The second half requires a rhythmic snap and drive that’s beyond the ability of a lot of orchestras more highly experienced and professionally rated than the NMCO. Nevertheless, orchestra and soloist got through it together with a good, hearty gallop. Dusenbury isn’t Benny Goodman, but she wields her own version of a supple clarinet very well.

For Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto, the soloist was Colyn Fischer, who teaches music at Central Middle School in San Carlos. This concerto is a long, rhapsodic work, at least for its first two movements. These have the rapturous beauty that Barber specialized in. Perky interjections from the orchestra gave it a role equal to the soloist’s.

As with the Copland, there’s a fast ending. The finale is a moto perpetuo that reportedly distressed the violinist who premiered the work in 1939. Fischer sounded happy with it, though. He found a melodic grace in the music by selective emphasis among the fast-spinning notes, a technique he perhaps picked up from his long experience playing Scottish folk music.

There was more to be heard from each composer. Another highlight of the concert was “Knoxville: Summer of 1915,” Barber’s ideally well-fitted setting of James Agee’s prose poem depicting the relaxed summer evenings of his childhood (Agee and Barber were the same age, so though Barber was from Pennsylvania rather than Tennessee, he could relate). Both words and music flow gently by. The words were sung in the deep soprano of Claire Kelm, who brought out the charm and innocence of Agee’s recollections. Her diction was clearer in the softer passages.

As with the concerto, the orchestra peeking out from behind the soloist, illustrating some of the images, like the streetcar passing by, contributed greatly to the appeal of this supremely lyrical work.

For Copland, the orchestra played selections from two of his greatest hits, the ballets “Billy the Kid” and “Appalachian Spring.” Though the “Billy” selections included the lumbering celebratory dance, the music was selected mostly for the same lyrical, pastoral quality heard in the concertos and the song.

Here, as in those works, the quality of the orchestra could be heard. NMCO is an accomplished but nonprofessional ensemble with a capacity for real beauty. Rhythm and flow, under Frieman’s direction, are handled well. The orchestra’s biggest challenge is matching lines from different sections of the ensemble in pitch and tone quality. Not all those sounds were lovely. Within sections, however, the quality is often more than satisfactory. Intertwining strings in the Copland ballets were particularly rich and haunting.

NMCO’s next concert will be Nov. 7 and Nov. 8, giving the premiere of a newly-composed “Gloria” for mixed chorus and chamber orchestra by the noted composer Nancy Bloomer Deussen, a resident of Mountain View. The Masterworks Serenade, chamber group of the Masterworks Chorale, will sing.

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