I almost didn’t go. I wasn’t feeling great last Wednesday when New Century Chamber Orchestra played the Mondavi Center in Davis. It’s a bummer because I’d always wanted to see them perform. They were debuting a new piece by Philip Glass with pianist Simone Dinnerstein as the soloist. A couple of years ago, Dinnerstein was invited for an impromptu breakfast at Philip Glass’ home when the composer offered to write her something. Dinnerstein and Glass settled on a piano concerto, his third.
Dinnerstein wrangled up 12 small orchestras to share the expense of commissioning a
work of this magnitude from Glass. Each ensemble was then granted a premiere in their hometown. San Francisco’s New Century chose to have the West Coast premiere at the Mondavi, Wednesday but would be performing in the area all weekend.
Needless to say, I missed the West Coast premiere. But I did go to the San Francisco premiere on Saturday at the Herbst Theater. And it was well worth the 2-hour drive.
A chamber ensemble is a special thing. When only 20 musicians are playing on stage at once sans a conductor, success relies on superior communication skills. New Century has that in droves, at least from my vantage point. Sometimes it feels as though that’s as many people as ever need to be on a stage. Then one is reminded of a great romantic symphony and thinks, “oh yeah, there’s a place for that too -” but I digress. These guys know how to play with one another, and they look like they have a great time doing it.
They opened the first set with Benjamin Britten‘s arrangement of Purcell’s Chacony in G minor and closed it with Geminiani’s interpretation of a Corelli Concerto Grosso. In the middle, a piece by Paris-based, American composer Bryce Dessner packed the most original punch. Dessner is 300, or so, years the junior of the other two composers and his 10-minute work resonated in a way the older works could not. You could see the visceral connection to the music in the orchestra and feel it in the crowd. Aheym, the name of the Dessner’s composition, has momentum and gravitas. New Century gave it a sense of urgency and playfulness as well. I will say, I do feel like I gained a new respect for Geminiani’s Concerto Grosso after seeing it live.
The second half, of course, started with Bach’s Keyboard Concerto No. 7 in G minor, BWV 1058. I say “of course” because that’s what we all came to see, right? Dinnerstein play Bach and Glass. They set the stage with the grand piano in the middle surrounded by the music stands belonging to the ensemble. I’m not a “piano-mind,” I’m a “singer/actor-mind,” so I thought it offputting that she would perform with her back to us. Then it occurred to me; it’s so much more important that she communicates with the orchestra than with me.
But she DID communicate with me. She used her back. Her body was so expressive, and I could see how well she interacted with the piano and the ensemble. From the opening chords, I thought, “oh, this is going to be great!” So I just sat back and let Bach and the gang do the work. It was head’s and shoulders above the Purcell and Geminiani, and it rivaled the Dessner in terms of energy from the orchestra, and it had Dinnerstein.
The next 15 minutes went by so quickly that I’d almost forgotten my anticipation of the finale. It’s the second time I’ve experienced a Glass premiere live in a little over a year. Have you ever gone to the premiere of something “classical?” Or have you at least been a part of one of the first audiences to see it? Think about the folks who hated Carmen or rioted at the Rite of Spring. Sure, this generation’s audiences are a lot more docile – more polite, perhaps – but still, there is nothing quite like the excitement and anticipation of not necessarily knowing what will happen (I’d already listened to the piece several times, but it was still very new to me). And when the music is good, it can really change or aid the energetic current of a room.
In this case, it felt like the Bach got us going. So when it came time for Philip Glass’ Piano Concerto No. 3, we were well on our way to our musical euphoria. It was Glass who turned us around for a moment. He quickly lets you know who’s steering the ship.
Since I first listened to the concerto (thanks for the early copy, Unfinished Side), I have struggled with the first movement. Ha! I don’t know why. I think it’s because I want to be in a trance and Glass doesn’t let you do that. In fact, the first bars of the piece are in a kind of minor and there’s this weird contrapuntal thing happening, and it’s grating for about 30 seconds or so. Dinnerstein brings that out on purpose. Then the strings enter with their first melody. After they take a turn at a little dissonance, the music starts to brighten up a bit.
It takes on more of that Glass-like flair. Impressive musical swelling and suspenseful thematic changes are what I love about his music. This quintessential Glass style gains momentum, then WHAM! Dissonance, again! I mean, like, whirling, unrelenting dissonance about halfway through the movement. After several listens, though, I’ve gotten more used to it. I dare say, seeing it live helped in that regard. It’s only a brief interruption; then it’s back to something more mesmerizing.
The second and third movements are just divine. Simone Dinnerstein owns this piece, both literally and figuratively. I’ll let you hear that for yourself because this isn’t a review, it’s a blog post. I’m just excited about this new music and I hope you are too. Even if you can’t see it live anytime soon – find it on Spotify or Apple Music. The album is called Circles and it’ll knock your socks off!
New Century is not the featured orchestra on the album, but in their fourth performance with Dinnerstein, they sure played like they could have been. I am excited to have had my first experience with the group and I am beyond excited to go back in the fall. And when I do, you will hear about it.