Last night in the Concert Hall of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, the New Century Chamber Orchestra (NCCO) concluded its 2012–2013 season with the world premiere of a new work by the Featured Composer of the season, Lera Auerbach. Those not familiar with Auerbach’s work had the opportunity to make “first contact” last December, when NCCO performed her “Sogno di Stabat Mater” (dream of the Stabat Mater), an emotionally intense reworking of passages from Giovanni Battista Pergolesi’s 1736 setting of the “Stabat Mater Dolorosa” hymn. While such “innovative appropriation” is often encountered in Auerbach’s aesthetic logic, that technique is much more diminished (if not entirely absent) in her new work, a string symphony entitled “Memoria de la Luz” (memory of the light).
On the other hand, this new composition shares with “Sogno di Stabat Mater” Auerbach’s quest to rethink the nature of sacred music. In her own words:
The work is structured in six movements that become six prayers.
Her note for the program book continues with her personal elaboration on the nature of prayer:
The act of praying, not in a traditional religious manner, but rather a most intense act of soul searching, a hard and honest look into oneself, questioning, and searching for answers. To pray is to relinquish defenses, pretenses, to quiet everyday noise, to accept the strength and fragility of one’s own naked soul.
I might take issue with that first sentence, but only because I think Auberbach is being a bit hard on tradition. Those who listen seriously to the sacred music of Johann Sebastian Bach would probably find that first sentence readily consistent with the spirit of Bach’s music.
Musically, however, one can take that second sentence as a guideline for listening to “Memoria de la Luz.” Each movement provides its own characteristic approach to the concept of prayer as an act of letting go of impediments and obstructions. This may involve the hushed detachment of the first movement, “Primera Luz” (first light), the calm acceptance of Miguel de Unamuno’s “tragic sense of life,” or the struggle of the questioning mind to confront doubt.
This latter may (or may not) have been achieved through the subtle appropriation of the primary motif from Charles Ives’ “The Unanswered Question.” However, such borrowing is decidedly absent throughout Auerbach’s six movements. Instead, there is a scrupulously transparent technique through which the qualities of prayer are evoked through melodic lines for individual instruments (not all of whom occupy Principal chairs). The result is a rhetoric of fragility that captures both the risks and the meditative rewards of that process of letting go.
My only difficulty was that there was far more to the intricacy of that rhetoric than could be apprehended through a single listening experience. This music clearly has far more to say than can be satisfied through just one encounter. Rather, this piece deserves to become a part of NCCO’s “working repertoire,” providing further opportunities for the meditative experience it encourages.
Ironically, “Memoria de la Luz” was followed by another act of letting go from an unexpected source. In this case the actor was Richard Wagner letting go of the full resources of an opera company with a large orchestra at its disposal, turning instead to chamber resources. The composition was “Siegfried Idyll,” created for the first birthday experienced by his wife Cosima after Wagner married her and first performed on the morning of December 25, 1870. The score calls for only thirteen musicians: flute, oboe, two clarinets, bassoon, two horns, trumpet, string quartet, and bass. The music would later find its way into the score for the third act Siegfried (composed much later than the first two acts), given its first performance in 1876; and, in many respects, “Siegfried Idyll” may be approached as a study in the intimacy that Siegfried experiences through his first encounter with Brünnhilde.
“Siegfried Idyll” is frequently performed with a moderately expanded string section, which is how NCCO presented it. However, through their reduced resources, one could still appreciate the transparency of Wagner’s textures and the subtle balances across wind, brass, and string sections. For those who like to count, the trumpet has only thirteen measures, clearly defining the climax and then withdrawing to allow the coda to unfold in serene intimacy. Wagner never intended this music for public performance, perhaps because it was such a radical departure from the public persona behind his operas; but it has become a concert favorite due, in no small part, to the skill with which Wagner could evoke quietude as well as his more familiar bombast.
The evening concluded with Joseph Haydn’s Hoboken I/45 symphony in F-sharp minor. This is known as the “Farewell” symphony because Haydn provided a plan for the musicians to depart from the stage during the coda to the final movement, a not particularly subtle way to let Prince Nikolaus Esterházy know that they needed some vacation time. However, the symphony as a whole is also notable as representative of Haydn’s Sturm und Drang (storm and stress) period, during which he experimented with some rather radical departures from the conventions of harmony and thematic construction (not always to the delight of his patron).
NCCO performed this symphony with both clarity and energy, through which one could appreciate just how far Haydn was pushing the envelope of tradition. Music Director Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg was particularly good at capturing the suspense (usually deceptive) in Haydn’s use of full-stop silences. She also took a rather comic approach to the “farewell” scene, having each performer depart with his/her own particular personality quirks. The result was a satisfying balance of Haydn at his most revolutionary and Haydn at his most good-natured, the perfect way to end yet another adventurous NCCO season.