Daniel Hope’s Right Shoulder Provides the Downbeat

The return of violinist Daniel Hope is one of the happiest events of the 2017 Bay Area music scene. If there was any doubt about his musical eloquence, the English maestro led the ensemble in an inspired rendition of the Tchaikovsky “Serenade for Strings” in the Sept. 21 season opener for the New Century Chamber Orchestra. The serenade itself of course is one of the most inspired pieces ever to come out of Russia: ineffably concise, propulsive and lyrical. The simplest of themes—first, moving down the scale, and later moving up it—is surrounded by a décor and filigree  that amazes. The purity of the NCCO’s violin sound in the Elegy had to be heard to be believed.

The group is consummately close-knit. If they sound as though they’d played together for years, that’s apt: the turnover rate is miniscule; the median arrival date of the typical player was 17 years ago.

This was a happy renaissance, first with the leadership of the  NCCO up for grabs, and then with the First Congregational Church, much damaged in the costly fire last year, now reopening its doors once again. Violinist Hope, officially the “artistic partner” of the NCCO over the coming three years, will come in as occasional concertmaster and conductor. Meanwhile the NCCO is playing musical chairs, with various candidates popping in to guest upcoming programs. And, to judge by past practice,  some one will eventually be contracted as leader and music director.

By tradition, the NCCO has no podium, no baton, no conductor as such. Its leader always leads from the violin. While leaders in the Johann Strauss era led by waving their bows, Hope is a mite subtler. The secret (but don’t tell any one): the downbeat is when his right shoulder abruptly drops a good three inches, and his knees bend. This elite  18-member string ensemble can read it fluently, even though this was only the second time Hope had ever guested here.

The concert featured the world premiere of Alan Fletcher’s Violin Concerto, a highly sonorous and lyrical outpouring written jointly for the NCCO and for Zurich, Switzerland, Hope’s other pied-a-terre. Fletcher, 61, was inspired  by themes of water and by the tragic Zurich religious leader Ulrich Zwingli (1484-1931). Caught up and killed in a battle of the Reformation, Zwingli had left us an original German hymn, “Haul the Wagon, Lord.” Unknown here but well-known in Zurich, the hymn with variations is quoted in the second movement, followed by a jarring orchestral crash that I can only interpret as the death of the charismatic but disputative Swiss theologian.

Fletcher’s opus is appealing in its fluidity and lyricism, though hardly a concerto in the usual sense; “Romance” or “Konzertstueck” would have been better suited as title. But Hope took on the solo part, which is virtually nonstop, effective in the affectionate improvisatory moods of the opener.

This opus, intended for both Zurich and the Bay Area, has a recurrent theme of water, nowhere more evident than in the finale, with its gestures of sailing over the swells and the constant lapping of the sea.

The Polish composer Wojciech Kilar was on the program with “Orawa.” It’s a minimalist, high-energy piece with a profound driving force, reminiscent of Polish country dances. It has a swarm-of-bees effect in the bass and a mighty crescendo-accelerando at the end, concluding with a full-orchestral shout.

The concert opened with the infectious Mendelssohn Octet in a buoyant, soaring performance where the cellos and bass were never shy, artfully rendered by 12 women and five men in the ensemble. Striving always for contrasts, Hope shaped the Andante to be more gritty than sweet, while the Scherzo was staccato and very soft. You had to like his animation and musicality devoid of trickery.

For an encore Hope & Co. added a soulful rendition of “America, the Beautiful.”

MUSIC NOTES—Fletcher is president and CEO of the Aspen Music Festival. Hope holds posts simultaneously with the Zurich Chamber Orchestra and Savannah Festival, with all three getting the Fletcher concerto on the schedule.

New Century Chamber Orchestra under Daniel Hope, Artistic Partner, repeating in San Francisco and San Rafael through Sept. 24. For NCCO info: (415) 392-4400, or go online.


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