Ever since its founding in 1992, San Francisco’s New Century Chamber Orchestra has bravely combined new, challenging works with crowd- and income-friendly popular classics.
For its upcoming concerts this week across the Bay Area, the rare conductor-less orchestra will offer an almost all-contemporary program, including two world premieres: Mark Adamo’s cello concerto, titled “Last Year,” with Jeffrey Zeigler as soloist; and Italian-American composer Paola Prestini’s “reimagining” of Canadian Inuk throat singer Tanya Tagaq’s “In Me.”
While violinist Daniel Hope, the orchestra’s world-famous music director, is away, Zeigler in his NCCO debut will lead the orchestra and also appear as soloist in William Grant Still’s “Phantom Chapel” and Andy Akiho’s “Oscillate.”
Still (1895-1978) was the first African American musician to conduct a professional symphony orchestra in the U.S. Akiho, 42, from South Carolina, is a New York-based percussionist whose primary instrument is steel pans.
Zeigler, returning to San Francisco where he spent eight years as the Kronos Quartet’s cellist, says he and Adamo have been discussing the project for several years: “Because of his operatic and theatrical background, I’ve always known that he had it in him to write an incredible cello concerto. I am absolutely thrilled to share that he has created a gorgeous and deeply poignant work.”
Adamo’s significant operatic work includes “The Gospel of Mary Magdalene,” commissioned and premiered by the San Francisco Opera. He says of the cello concerto: “When I first thought of a piece looking at Vivaldi’s ‘The Four Seasons’ through the lens of climate change, I thought it could be, potentially, a rich and trenchant idea for a cello concerto. What I didn’t guess was that it would be, emotionally, and technically, one of the hardest things I’d ever tried to write.”
What specifically was hard about the work? “If — as I think a lot of us do: I know I do — you spend most of your day denying, or simply not thinking about the possibility of impending catastrophe (what’s another plastic bottle?) what happens when you as a composer open yourself to experience that fear and that grief, and try to turn that into an aural experience?
“And — even if you come up with something expressive — then what? Do you just leave your audience there, in the abyss? How do you end a piece like this in a way that’s neither nihilistic nor dishonest?”
The concerts are offered in live and streamed performances. Audience members are required to present proof of full vaccination against COVID-19 and wear masks while inside the performance venue.
IF YOU GO New Century Chamber Orchestra
Where: Herbst Theatre, 401 Van Ness Ave., S.F.
When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday
Tickets: $30 to $67.50
Contact: (415) 392-4400, cityboxoffice.com, www.ncco.org
Note: Concerts also are at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at First Congregational Church Berkeley; 7:30 p.m. Friday at First United Methodist Church, Palo Alto; and 3 p.m. Sunday at Osher Marin JCC, San Rafael.