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Review | New Century Chamber Orchestra addresses the cycle of seasons in a new age

By Joshua Kosman, San Francisco Chronicle

For literally as long as human beings have walked the earth, the regular rotation of the seasons has been something we could count on, a reliable bedrock in a world full of unpredictability and chaos. Not anymore.

That simple, chilling fact lies at the heart of “Last Year,” composer Mark Adamo’s mournfully beautiful new cello concerto. Through a haunting musical dialogue with Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons,” Adamo asks us to consider what it means for something baked so deeply into our evolutionary subconscious to be permanently altered.

“Last Year” had its world premiere during the current series of concerts by the New Century Chamber Orchestra, one of the co-commissioners. And in Herbst Theatre on Saturday, Nov. 6, in the third of four performances at various Bay Area locations, cellist Jeffrey Zeigler and the orchestra delivered the music with an eloquent blend of tenderness and urgency.

In Vivaldi’s collection of four violin concertos, the seasons exist as a fixed backdrop to the routines of rustic daily life — the labors of the goatherd, the harvest celebration, the joys and treacheries of skating on ice. The specter of death looms behind it all, but lightly and by implication (how many of these annual cycles will any of us get to experience?).

Adamo, in response to the implacable truths of climate change, upends both of those aspects. The character of each season morphs into something unpredictable and strange, and death — in the form of the “Dies Irae,” the time-honored musical symbol of the grave — now rears its head insistently.

All these philosophical musings are etched into music of affecting inventiveness. Melodic snippets from Vivaldi find their way into the score, sometimes as nostalgic quotations and sometimes as a structural basis for Adamo’s expansive counterpoint.

Perhaps the score’s most impressive aspect is Adamo’s ability to conjure up Vivaldian pictorial images of the contemporary climate. In the “Winter” movement, pointillist interjections by the harp, piano and vibraphone depict a terrifying but beautifully crystalline landscape of extreme ice. The “Summer” movement, which brings the work to a faintly hopeful ending, the lyrical writing for strings situates the listener amid the torpor of a modern heat wave.

Zeigler, who served as guest leader for the entire program (New Century, by design, performs without a conductor), brought a wondrous degree of wisdom and grace to the performance.

The remainder of the evening was no less rewarding. “Phantom Chapel,” one of the two movements of William Grant Still’s exquisite “Bells,” opened the program amid an array of gorgeously vaporous chords, shifting with unnerving fluidity between major and minor. “In Me,” by Tanya Tagaq and Paola Prestini, evoked the tradition of Inuit throat singing through a flurry of richly physical scratching techniques of bows against strings.

Finally, Andy Akiho’s brilliantly manic and hypercharged “Oscillate” — a tormented but exuberant paean to extreme insomnia — sent the entire orchestra spinning in a series of relentless rhythmic grooves. Over the course of three connected movements, meant to describe three sleepless days, Akiho’s writing is angular, repetitive and always thrilling, with a few brief oases of calm scattered throughout. The piece’s serene close suggests the arrival of sleep at last.

Click here to read the review on the San Francisco Chronicle's Datebook website.


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