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Comet in Concert

New Century Chamber Orchestra streaks as brightly as Hale-Bopp

By Philip Collins

THERE ARE too few performances of Igor Stravinsky's music; high-quality performances are rarer still. And conductorless renderings of Stravinsky's orchestral scores are sighted about as frequently as the Hale-Bopp Comet.

So last Friday was special, because not only did the New Century Chamber Orchestra give a stunning, unconducted performance of Stravinsky's Apollon Musagète at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, but the comet's trek across the skies was in perfect focus during the hour preceding the concert.

The program also featured the premiere of David Carlson's Cello Concerto No. 2, commissioned by New Century and written expressly for the ensemble's principal cellist, Emil Miland. Tchaikovsky's Souvenir de Florence took up the second half of the concert, and the orchestra's performance of this exuberant suite was over the top. It was also rather rough around the edges, but of the three works, this one was built to survive such treatment.

Apollon Musagète, which, in later years, Stravinsky opted to call Apollo, is one of the quintessential models of his neoclassic output. Not only is it Apollonian in its subject--honoring the birth of Apollo--but its aesthetics are unflappably refined and formalized. The sense of architecture is always prevalent, and within the prescribed limits of known forms, Stravinsky's genius manifests one revelation after another.

Some critics have misconstrued the composer's strict methodology in Apollo as evidence of passionless industry, but music director Stuart Canin and the New Century Chamber Orchestra did not make that mistake. They served score and spirit to the letter. With reverence to tempo relationships and details of articulation, New Century executed Stravinsky's instructions exactingly.

As with many of the composer's scores, austerity and ardor are in constant need of balancing, and the performance walked the tightrope with perfect equilibrium--accurate, yet full-blooded, and unabashedly lustrous at times, without ever spilling into sentimentality.

The score's agenda of ensemble groupings and varying articulation techniques kept the spotlight roving among the ranks and brought the players' expertise in solo and chamber-music styles to the fore.

Concertmaster Canin's solo cadenza in the first of Apollo's variations made a singing wholeness of its exhaustive use of filigree and double stops. The subsequent pair-off with associate concertmaster Marty Simonds sweetly captured the music's dance impulses over bright punctuations of the cellos and bass.

The gentle lyricism of the Pas d'action and Polyhymnia's Variation featured alert rapport by the orchestra and handsome solo work by the violas in the former section. Miland was afforded some warm-up stretches for Carlson's concerto in his beautifully delivered cello solos in Calliope's Variation and the Pas de deux. Substitute bassist Michael Taddei made resonant contributions during the work's more exposed episodes.

CARLSON'S single-movement concerto was given a robust account by Miland and the orchestra. The score's ferocious temperament calls for nothing less. Carlson uses extreme contrasts of timbres and intensities for multiple purposes.

Toward pragmatic ends, the contrasts provided a viable solution for keeping Miland's instrument audible. The soloist was almost always in relief, because whatever the cello was up to, the orchestra would be doing something different.

The concerto's expressive design is also served by the contrasts. The cello's recurrent volcanic uprisings (which open the work) and its burning repeated-note figure near the end are countered by ravishing melodies and innumerable episodes of quiet. Among the score's greatest charms are the muted chordal passages played by the orchestra; their velvetlike texture shrouds the cello's most intense events in delicious mystery.

The stylistic overtones are equally disparate. There are echoes from Middle Eastern cultures as well as from 19th-century Europe, although the predominance of 20th-century chromatic vernacular proved the definitive edge in the music's volatile character.

Miland worked through the score's formidable difficulties with bravura and beauty of tone. His command of the principal motif, the aforementioned rapid climb, was electrifying and shaped in such a way that one could hear the focal pitches that showed up in other passages. The Concerto No. 2 is Carlson's and Miland's fourth collaboration, and it is clear that the composer knows how to champion his colleague's significant talents to utmost effect.

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From the March 27-April 2, 1997 issue of Metro

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