The New Millennium Chamber Orchestra celebrates women | Culture & Leisure

The New Millennium Chamber Orchestra has put together a boldly imaginative lineup for its concerts this past weekend. I heard the show on Sunday, May 8 at the First Presbyterian Church in Palo Alto. The lineup included three female composers.

Musical director Jenny Beyer Cornell quoted a proverb that says “Women give birth to men and men give birth to art” and replied, “We’ll see about that.”

Two of the female composers are living and one was in the past. The former composer was Emilie Mayer, a German romantic who is one of many 19th-century female composers whose complete absence from the standard repertoire is something of a puzzle. Its overture Faust, inspired by Goethe’s play, compares favorably to the more turgid work of the same title by Richard Wagner, who was actually an admirer of Mayer’s music. Beginning with a long dark-toned introduction, Mayer’s Faust continues with an arpeggio-laden main theme that had a strong rhythmic impulse in this rendition. A serene ending implies at least redemption for Gretchen’s character.

The orchestra has already played Courage by Adrienne Albert. It’s a short piece with a broad approach in major mode. It comes across less as the challenge of illness for which Albert wrote it than as a celebration of human achievement, in the style of the music from the space program films.

The third piece by a woman had unusual instrumentation for an orchestral concert. Spirals by Icelandic composer María Huld Markan Sigfúsdóttir is a chamber work for string trio and electronics. The live performers were orchestra principals, concertmaster Colyn Fischer, violist Silvio Rocha and cellist Natsumi Nakamura.

Spirals is an eerie but hauntingly beautiful soundscape work in which the strings play long held notes with ghostly bits of pizzicato, while the electronic track offers drone chords and soft crackling sounds. The composer originally wrote it for baroque instruments. These concerts were the world premiere of a revised version for modern instruments at modern concert pitch, with the electronic track revised to fit.

It worked well with one of the two works by male composers on the program, Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten by Estonian Arvo Pärt. This 1977 classic is a simple yet captivating concoction of simple tonic descending string lines, where the Spirals lines are mostly ascending. The only other instrument playing is an orchestral bell struck periodically throughout the piece.

At the end of Cantus, the strings cut abruptly, while the sound of the previously struck bell suddenly resounds in the silence. It worked perfectly in this rendition — the bell was visibly loud — although for full effect Cantus requires careful balancing between the string sections, which was difficult to achieve here.

The concert ended with an old favourite, Sergei Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony. Although Prokofiev is Russian in all other respects, he can be claimed as Ukrainian because he was born within the current borders of that republic. In the current circumstances, which also demanded that the concert open with the Ukrainian national anthem, why not? And that’s how he was so identified.

The Classical Symphony was Prokofiev’s lighthearted experiment in imagining what kind of 18th-century music Joseph Haydn might have written had he been transported to the early 20th century. It’s full of jokes and tricks that require a soft touch from all players, so this group of volunteers took on this challenge by taking the piece slow and easy. It was a pleasant and distinguished performance, simplified by omitting the usual repetition of the first movement exposition.

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