Friday, November 6, 2015

May 20, 2009: A night of darkness and light

Shadows and Light was the name of the final program in Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg's first season as Music Director of the New Century Chamber Orchestra (NCCO).  My wife and I once took out an NCCO subscription, back when they were led by Krista Bennion Feeney, and I have been meaning to catch up with them since we moved from Palo Alto to San Francisco.  Last night I finally made good on my promise, having spent the whole season with Nadja staring into my bedroom from one of their banners on Franklin Street:

As might be deduced from the title, the program was an offering of different perspectives of night moods, although it is unclear whether or not Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's G major serenade (K. 525), best known as "Eine Kleine Nachtmusik," is night music in any way other than its nickname.  This certainly is not the night of the final act of Le Nozze di Figaro, during which all the machinations of the first three acts finally come to a head of retributions and humbling apologies.  More likely it was prepared as incidental music for a festive evening occasion;  and, as Peter Laki suggested in his program notes, these are the four movement that "survived" the occasion.  The fact that those four movements follow the formal structure of a symphony could be coincidence as likely as a deliberate editorial act.

Laki also referred to the "sophisticated simplicity" of the music.  However, the challenge in performing this serenade has less to do with cultivating either the sophistication or the simplicity and more to do with bringing to life an experience so familiar to just about everyone in the audience.  Salerno-Sonnenberg and the NCCO achieved this by cultivating vigorous energy from the score, particularly giving the strategic applications of crescendo the full "Mannheim roller" treatment.  If this music was never intended to be more than incidental, NCCO made it a point to honor the festivity of the occasion without neglecting the sophistication of Mozart's compositional technique.

In his San Francisco Chronicle review Joshua Kosman viewed this opening of the program as a bookend complemented at the end of the evening by the overture to Johann Strauss' Die Fledermaus in an all-string arrangement by Mats Lidström.  Indeed, a grand ball under the blazing lights of an opulent setting is the centerpiece of this operetta, concluding only with the striking of a clock reminding the guests that morning has come.  (That clock is rendered in the overture with a glockenspiel, and Lidström cleverly mimicked that sound with harmonic bowing in the first violins against pizzicato in the seconds.)  However, the whole plot of Fledermaus revolves around all the deceptions that play out in the course of this ball (and the consequences of those deceptions in the "morning after");  so all those blazing lights shine down on a lot of dark acts.  However, while the operetta plays out those acts, the overture pretty much restricts its attention to the dazzle of the bright lights;  and I would agree with Kosman that one good festive setting deserves another.

On the other hand that intensity of energy that NCCO brought to Mozart was also complemented by the suite Bernard Herrmann compiled from the music he composed for Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho.  Hitchcock's use of black-and-white film made this work a study in the interplay of darkness and light, both of which are taken to extremes to escalate the dramatic tension.  Indeed, I get so wrapped up in this film every time I see it that it had not occurred to me that Herrmann had composed this work only for strings;  and he elicits an extensive palette of sonorities from those strings, even if most of us only remember the agonizing screeches of the shower scene (if we remember any of the music at all).

Separated from the film, this suite provides us with an informative perspective on Herrmann's work as a craftsman.  This music is, after all, even more "incidental" than Mozart's serenade;  but it is also highly functional.  It is not so much the act of composition that we would associate with Mozart and Strauss as it is an assembly of ingredients, not always necessarily of Herrmann's original synthesis.  The forceful down-bowing of the "Prelude" cannot help but invoke the "Danses des Adolescentes" in the first part of Igor Stravinsky's Le Sacre du Printemps, while the dissonances that enhance the disquieting effects of Hitchcock's moods owe a clear debt to Anton Webern's compositions for strings coming from roughly the same time as Le Sacre.  Then, of course, there are several occasions in which the master of twentieth-century "night music," Béla Bartók, has furnished Herrmann with just the right seasoning to serve Hitchcock's purposes.  This is music which my composition teacher would have dismissed as "impossible to write without the benefit of the New York Public Library;"  but it was still an element (even if not an obvious one) that contributed to making Psycho such a powerful film.  The power of that film could be appreciated by the extent to which this suite summoned my personal memories of Hitchcock's visions.

The contrast of moods between Mozart and Herrmann was reflected after the intermission when the nocturne movement from Alexander Borodin's second string quartet (in its string orchestra version) was coupled with the world premiere of Clarise Assad's "Dreamscapes," for solo violin (performed by Salerno-Sonnenberg) and string orchestra.  In this setting Borodin's nocturne (and the romantic images of Kismet that it cannot help but invoke) was very much a calm before Assad's storm.  There is more to this latter composition than can be grasped in a single listening.  The composer has obviously built up considerable understanding of the phenomenology of dreams and their daunting mix of logic and illogic.  In her own notes for this work, she described the solo violin as confronting "a maze of unpredictability and uncertainty;"  and it is clear that she is going for those same disquieting effects that Hitchcock had mastered in his movies.  However, on a first hearing one can do little more than try to look where Assad is pointing, without necessarily grasping all that she wants one to see/hear.  I am reminded that I once told a colleague that the greatest complement one can give to a work heard for the first time is, "I want to hear that again."  Salerno-Sonnenberg and NCCO performed "Dreamscapes" in a way that left me both fascinated and eager to hear it again.  They also left me realizing that it has been too long since I last heard NCCO, and I hope to make up for that during their 2009–2010 season.

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