For literally as long as humans have roamed the earth, the regular rotation of the seasons has been something we could rely on, a reliable foundation in a world full of unpredictability and chaos. Not anymore.
This simple and frightening fact is at the heart of “Last Year”, the sadly beautiful new cello concerto from composer Mark Adamo. Through a haunting musical dialogue with Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons,” Adamo asks us to reflect on what it means for something so deeply ingrained in our evolving subconscious to be permanently altered.
“Last Year” made its world premiere during the current concert series of the New Century Chamber Orchestra, one of the co-curators. And at the Herbst Theater on Saturday, November 6, the third of four performances in various locations across the Bay Area, cellist Jeffrey Zeigler and the orchestra delivered the music with an eloquent blend of tenderness and urgency.
In Vivaldi’s collection of four violin concertos, the seasons exist as a fixed backdrop to the routines of rustic everyday life – the labors of the goatherd, the harvest festival, the joys and betrayals of ice skating. The specter of death looms behind it all, but lightly and by implication (how many of these annual cycles will any of us experience?).
Adamo, in response to the relentless truths of climate change, turns these two aspects upside down. Each season’s character transforms into something unpredictable and bizarre, and Death – in the form of “Dies Irae,” the age-old musical symbol of the grave – now lifts its head emphatically.
All these philosophical reflections are engraved in a music of a touching inventiveness. Melodic excerpts from Vivaldi are found in the score, sometimes as nostalgic quotes and sometimes as a structural basis for Adamo’s vast counterpoint.
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the score is Adamo’s ability to conjure up Vivaldian pictorial images of the contemporary climate. In the “Winter” movement, the pointillist interjections of the harp, piano and vibraphone depict a terrifying but beautifully crystalline landscape of extreme ice. The “Summer” movement, which leads the work to a slightly hopeful end, the lyrical writing for strings places the listener in the torpor of a modern heatwave.
Zeigler, who served as guest conductor for the entire program (New Century, by design, plays without a conductor), brought a wonderful degree of wisdom and grace to the performance.
The rest of the evening was no less rewarding. “Phantom Chapel”, one of two movements from William Grant Still’s exquisite “Bells”, opened the program amid a beautifully vaporous array of chords, oscillating with disconcerting fluidity between major and minor. “In Me,” by Tanya Tagaq and Paola Prestini, evoked the tradition of Inuit throat singing through a flurry of richly physical strumming techniques of bows against strings.
Finally, Andy Akiho’s brilliantly manic and hypercharged “Oscillate” – a tormented but exuberant hymn to extreme insomnia – sent the entire orchestra into a series of relentless rhythmic grooves. Over the course of three connected movements, meant to describe three sleepless days, Akiho’s writing is angular, repetitive, and always gripping, with a few brief oases of calm scattered around. The serene end of the room suggests the arrival of sleep at last.
New Century Chamber Orchestra: 3 p.m. Sunday November 7. $ 30 to $ 68. Osher Marin JCC, 200 N. San Pedro Road, San Rafael. 415-357-1111. www.ncco.org.