During its interregnum period, the crack New Century Chamber Orchestra  is inviting various contrasting guest leaders. The latest is Benjamin Beilman, a supremely gifted East Coast violinist, who was younger than any of the 19 players in the ensemble that he led on Nov. 9.

Though a superb soloist, Beilman has neither the experience nor the knack of integrating into an ensemble and blending his sound seamlessly into the orchestra. Indeed, according to his detailed and impressive CV, he has not led or played in orchestras previously. In leading the Stravinsky Concerto in D, he brings about an NCCO sound that is rustic and grainy rather than well-focused and effervescent.

But his programming is imaginative, his play electric, and clearly the string players love the association.

The modern piece was “Gran Turismo” for eight virtuoso violinists by Andrew Norman, 38. The title refers to cars, specifically weaving through L.A. traffic for a set of round-robin concerts in different locales, with each ensemble having to zoom promptly to each new concert spot.

The piece is a furious high-energy fiddle-faddle, with the octet subdivided into various permutations. There are glissandi, and even some legato parts, but overall, fiendishly fast and difficult, a task that the NCCO handled very effectively over the eight-minute span.

Playing the solo in Bach’s E Major Violin Concerto, in a modern manner hardly related to the 18th-century origins, Beilman  was forceful and dynamic, showing a strong personality  and good taste. Also his crescendos and ritards were to die for.

Unorthodoxy came in the form of the early experimentalist Franz von Biber’s “Battalia,” in which the combat gives way to a lament of the wounded musketeers—how appropriate a theme, on the eve of Veterans Day. Along the way, the string musicians must provide sound effects slapping strings and stamping feet. And in the beer-hall movement early on, musketeers’ off-key singing is conveyed by a cacophony of strings, seemingly playing in the wrong keys.

If you like Beethoven’s chamber music with more ballast than usual, get the beefy Mahler arrangement for string orchestra of the “Serioso” String Quartet in F Minor. Here was Beethoven’s anger at its max, and Beilman at his best. My favorite here was the Allegretto, with the lower strings tiptoeing down the back stairs gingerly, as if seeking peace and quiet from all the hubbub.

MUSIC NOTES—Now 25 years of age, the NCCO these days is proud to be a local conductorless string group, with a female majority….The wave of the future: Both Beilman and the contrabass player rejected paper scores in favor of an electronic screen, with “page-turns” done by pedal control….The Berkeley concert had to be moved from the First Congregational to the First Presbyterian Church across the street because of a booking snafu.

New Century Chamber Orchestra in concerts also in Palo Alto, S.F., and San Rafael, through Nov. 12. For NCCO info: (415) 392-4400, or go online.


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