Sunday, March 3, 2019

concert review: New Millennium Chamber Orchestra

I didn't want to miss this one: three English composers from the early 20C pastoral and folksong-collecting school - Ralph Vaughan Williams, Gustav Holst, and George Butterworth - and their mutual teacher, Hubert Parry. One of my favorite clusters of musical composition.

NMCO is always wise to program a little violin concerto that their concertmaster, Colyn Fischer, can play, because he always does that so well. This time it was the most famous work of the entire English pastoral school, VW's The Lark Ascending. Fischer wrote the program note and suggested that the source of its "gravity and depth" is that, while VW conceived and began the piece before WW1, he didn't revise and orchestrate it until afterwards, and that war had changed him like it did everyone who served in it. "This piece is not nostalgic, it yearns for innocence; it is not merely a pastoral, it is an invitation to peace." Nicely put as an explanation of what people hear in it.

Holst, when they're not playing The Planets, is usually represented by the sprightly and dance-like St. Paul Suite, but NMCO music director James Richard Frieman dug out a favorite work of mine which actually put Holst's folksong findings to use. A Somerset Rhapsody would particularly interest some of my readers because it begins, on an oboe, with the same melody for "A Rosebud in June" that Steeleye Span uses on Below the Salt. Combine that with a couple of livelier folk tunes and a return to the quiet beginning and you have the rhapsody.

For Parry, Frieman did an even better turn by presenting what I've long thought must be his best composition, An English Suite for strings, an absolute charmer of cool-minded neoclassical bent. From its seven movements, Frieman excerpted four: the three slow movements (probably the easiest for a nonprofessional orchestra to play), plus the final "Frolic", which is fast and utterly delightful. I defy anyone who likes, say, the Holberg Suite, the Simple Symphony, or Wiren's Serenade, not to put this high in their company.

Butterworth, a close friend of VW's, is the least-known of these, and that's because his career was cut short when, like Tolkien's friend Rob Gilson, he was killed while serving on the Somme. Butterworth was 31, old enough to leave some legacy behind him, including two orchestral works played at this concert. The Banks of Green Willow is, like Holst's rhapsody, based on folk song melodies. His Shropshire Lad Rhapsody is not - its main tune comes from Butterworth's own setting of one of the Housman poems - but it's a big and powerful piece that received an effective performance to close this concert.

This was not the only concert I got to this weekend. On Friday I made a beeline for Bing for more VW. Too often I hear his magnificent choral monument A Sea Symphony in bad acoustics, and here was a chance to hear it in good acoustics. The acoustics were fine, though the performance by a Stanford student orchestra and choir was merely OK, and I suspect that it's simply that the conductor, Steve Sano, doesn't have full command over a work of such magnitude. The orchestra sounded pretty good and the chorus sounded very good. The soprano, Marnie Breckenridge, is a professional, while the baritone, Kenneth Goodson, is a moonlighting engineering professor. But wait, he's professionally trained as a singer (he even studied with Fischer-Dieskau), yet he had trouble carrying his voice.

Also on the program, a perky little flute concerto by Jacques Ibert, played by an undergraduate named Nnamdi Odita-Honnah. His parents are immigrants from Nigeria, he grew up in Texas, and he took up the flute, at which he is impressively talented.

And on Saturday, I heard Symphony Silicon Valley, and for that you'd best wait for my SFCV review to appear in a day or two.

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