In the program, an unfamiliar name and dates indicating a startlingly
short lifespan: "Guillaume Lekeu, 1870-1894." Twenty-four years?! The
Belgian composer, a veritable genius, judging by what we heard tonight,
was 23 when he ate sherbet containing contaminated water. He died of
typhoid on Jan. 21, 1894, a day after his 24th birthday.
Lekeu, his music, and his tragedy were among the unusual constituents
of a New Century Chamber Orchestra concert on Friday, at the Legion of
Honor, structured in the group's routinely unusual programming mode.
Bracketed by Puccini's "Crisantemi" and Beethoven's String Quartet No.
11 in F minor (orchestrated by Mahler) were Lekeu's Adagio for Strings
("Les Fleurs Pales du souvenir") and Derek Bermel's 2000 "Soul Garden."
Quite a stretch, all in a few minutes under an hour. (Whatever happened
to concerts of four or five hours in the days of typhoid-inducing sherbet?)
Lekeu's 1891 Adagio qualifies as "new music" not only by its novelty
but also by its dense Wagnerian sound, grandeur and passion, with touches
of early Schoenberg, and - especially - Lekeu's teachers, Franck and
d'Indy. Had he lived, Lekeu might have become another Richard Strauss,
albeit with a Gallic sound. The performance featured gorgeous solo
passages from concertmaster Krista Bennion Feeney and principal violist
To make this performance even more significant, members of Ghidossi-Deluca's
Young People's Chamber Orchestra participated in the concert, a dozen
high-school age musicians from Santa Rosa playing behind the NCCO
musicians, but taking solo bows at the end while their elders/teachers
discreetly stayed in the wings.
There was a lot of family warmth too at the end of the concert as every
member of the orchestra presented a rose - and multiple hugs and kisses
- to Bennion Feeney, who is leaving after seven years of being the
orchestra's music director and concertmaster; she ended up with a large
bouquet and what might have been a tear or two.
In the melancholy but warm, comforting Puccini (a funereal dirge,
eventually incorporated in the finale of "Manon Lescaut"), and in the
wildly contrasting moods of the Beethoven "Serioso" quartet, the inheritance
of the Bennion Feeney era shone forth clearly, with clean, heartfelt,
impeccable ensemble playing. But virtuoso-in-extremis came in Bermel's
"Soul Garden," both in the understated but difficult accompaniment from
a string quintet and the impossibly brilliant solo from violist Kurt
Bermel, a fast-emerging New York composer, is definitely a man to watch.
He has the kind of eclectic background Philip Glass and Steve Reich have
brought to their work - Bermel studied at Yale, the University of Michigan,
in Amsterdam, Jerusalem, plus Ghana (Lobi xylophone), Dublin (Villean
pipes), and Bulgaria (Thracian folk music) - and yet his voice is totally
distinct among the (aging) New Music figures.
"Soul Garden," originally written for a dance company, is a 15-minute
viola concerto, with aural "gestures" and unearthly sounds, quite without
any concession to conventional tonality or conventional audiences.
Program-note references to jazz and vocal music drew a blank from this
listener, who found no connection to anything as conventional, hearing
instead a striking, often unattractive or downright "ugly," but challenging
and powerful piece. Throughout it all, Rohde produced eldritch sounds
with aplomb, sweating physically, but with no perspiration audible in
the performance. For the audience, it would have been beneficial to
hear the whole piece again; for Rohde, it might have turned into instant
carpal tunnel syndrome or worse.
For New Century's next season, programs range from Telemann, Britten,
and Elgar to the world premiere of Jorge Liderman's "Rolling Strings,"
Arvo Part's "Tabula Rasa," and Gordon Chin's "Formosa Seasons" Violin
Concerto. See http://ncco.org/.
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