Thursday, November 16, 2017

Benjamin Beilman and the New Century Chamber Orchestra

The New Century Chamber Orchestra is hosting and auditioning an international roster of guest violinists/musical leaders this year after the departure of music director Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg last season. On Saturday at Herbst Theater, the guest concertmaster was Benjamin Beilman above, a sweetly fierce musician who is 26 years old but looks about 16. The program was an interesting grab-bag, starting with Biber's entertaining and experimental 1673 suite, Battalia, which depicts soldiers fighting, drinking, and lamenting through some wild, extended techniques for strings. The movement depicting drunken soldiers, "dissolute company of all types of humours," featured each instrument playing their own tune in their own key, creating a crazed cacophony that wouldn't reappear until the 20th century.

This was followed by the 1946 Concerto in D by Stravinsky. Though I love most of the composer's music, there is an arid, astringent side which has less appeal. This three-movement neoclassical nod to the Baroque never quite connected for me the half dozen times I tried to absorb it on recordings, and the fine live performance didn't change that impression. Beilman then became soloist in Bach's early 18th century Violin Concerto in E major in a driving, passionate performance that melded beautifully with the chamber orchestra around him. The only disappointment was in the slow second movement where the playing sounded mushy and sentimental rather than soulful.

After intermission, Beilman joined seven other violinists for the young American Andrew Norman's short, virtuosic Grand Turismo. On the composer's website, there is an amusing origin story: "Rewind my life a bit and you might find a particular week in 2003 when I was researching the art of Italian Futurist Giacomo Balla (right) for a term paper, watching my roommates play a car racing video game called Gran Turismo, and thinking about the legacy of Baroque string virtuosity as a point of departure for my next project. It didn’t take long before I felt the resonances between these different activities, and it was out of their unexpected convergence that this piece was born."

I was accompanied by a music-loving, 24-year-old coworker who had never been to a classical music concert, and this was his favorite piece of the evening, possibly because he played the video game when he was a kid. Also, the music has a propulsive energy that is irresistable, and the octet gave a thrilling performance.

The concert ended with Mahler's 1899 transcription for string orchestra of Beethoven's 1810 string quartet, the "Serioso," which was hissed and booed during its Vienna premiere because it was viewed as a gargantuan desecration, rather like Mahler's own symphonies. I found it enjoyable, and the driving unison attacks of the orchestra were expertly performed except for a sag again in the slow movement.

Beilman threw himself into every piece of music with such energy that he looked sweat-drenched and dazed by the end. He was great fun to watch and hear, and I hope NCCO brings him back.

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