It is tempting to describe the chamber orchestra as the unicorn of the music world. Their sightings tend to be rare, and even the definition of the beast remains elusive.
The latest edition of the authoritative Harvard Dictionary of Music offers but two vague sentences to define chamber orchestra, with nothing more specific than “a small orchestra of around 20 or 25 players.” In the 1980s, I recall that San Diego actually supported three different chamber orchestras, but none of them made it into the 21st century.
Friday the La Jolla Music Society presented San Francisco’s New Century Chamber Orchestra at The Conrad, their first visit to San Diego since this orchestra was formed in 1992. A sleek ensemble of 21 strings, harp, and harpsichord, the New Century Chamber Orchestra is led by British violinist Daniel Hope from his position as Concertmaster.
Although some chamber orchestras have focused on music from the time of Mozart and Haydn because the orchestras of the late 18th century were rarely larger than what we call today’s chamber orchestra, New Century’s Friday program was firmly rooted in the present—works by the American composer Jessie Montgomery and the German-British composer Max Richter—as well as a nod to that titan of the previous century Benjamin Britten.
Only a month ago in The Conrad, the San Diego Symphony and guest pianist Awadagin Pratt performed Jessie Montgomery’s impressive 2022 piano concerto Rounds for Piano and String Orchestra. In Rounds, Montgomery—who currently serves as the Chicago Symphony’s composer-in-residence—traversed the emotional scope of the traditional three-movement concerto into one astutely compact yet dramatic movement. In Banner, she deconstructed the musical phrases of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” fusing them into a bristling collage of quotes and allusions to 19th-century popular American songs and marches, although not with the literal bravado of Charles Ives in his Variations on America.
Richter’s Recomposed Vivaldi—The Four Seasons proved a far more substantial work of deconstruction, reframing all the movements of Vivaldi’s familiar work played in order and retro-fitted with the composer’s own fluent Neo-Baroque minimalist idiom. Since Daniel Hope played the violin solos in the 2012 première of the work by the Britten Sinfonia at London’s Barbican Center, we can safely assume his confident interpretation bears the composer’s imprimatur. Whether Richter’s Four Seasons version improves Vivaldi is debatable, but it does allow the listener to hear the too familiar piece in a new way,
Pride of place in my book goes to the New Century’s vibrant account of Britten’s Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge. Although Britten structured this homage to his esteemed teacher in the manner of a Baroque suite with many short movements, the orchestra revealed the rhapsodic drive that propels this marvelously inventive work. Some chamber groups display a warmer sound than New Century projects, but the precision of their ensemble and clean, supple sonority could not be more ingratiating.
This concert was presented by the La Jolla Music Society in La Jolla’s Conrad Prebys Performing Arts Center on Friday, May 12, 2023.