Review: Daniel Hope and New Century deliver a masterful program of music devoted to violin master Yehudi Menuhin

02.05.16
San Jose Mercury News

Throughout its history, the New Century Chamber Orchestra has earned a sterling reputation for energized performances of the string repertoire. But even longtime admirers of the conductorless ensemble had to be newly impressed by its performance Thursday evening at First Congregational Church in Berkeley. And if the concert represented a high-water mark for the orchestra, what it suggested for the future was downright tantalizing.

Titled "Hope to Menuhin," the program spanned the centuries from Bach to Philip Glass, with each work paying tribute to Hope's mentor, the legendary violinist Yehudi Menuhin. Noting that this year marks the 100th anniversary of Menuhin's birth, Hope -- who was just a child when he met the elder violinist and was invited to perform with Menuhin on German television when he was 11 -- did a fine job throughout the evening of drawing connections between Menuhin and the music.

It's a dazzling concerto, completed by Mendelssohn when he was just 12 years old, and Hope's refined tone and expressive phrasing lent considerable luster to the performance. If the slow movement reflected his most focused artistry, the violinist's vivacious playing shone just as brightly in the zesty outer movements. The New Century strings followed him through each melodic twist and dancing turn.

Equally captivating was Hope's solo work in a selection of contemporary works, including Bechara El-Khoury's "Unfinished Journey," composed to commemorate the 10th anniversary of Menuhin's death. The violinist also brought exquisite focus to Toru Takemitsu's "Nostalghia," and to Arvo Part's "Darf ich," with the Estonian composer's writing for violin, strings and tubular bell (played by percussionist Galen Lemmon) casting an otherworldly spell. Both scores were written for Menuhin.

Elsewhere, Hope shared the solo spotlight: with Dawn Harms, New Century's longtime associate concertmaster, in Bach's ebullient Concerto in D minor for 2 Violins, Strings, and Basso Continuo; with violinist Candice Guirao in a fleet performance of Vivaldi's Concerto in A minor for 2 Violins; and with violinist Iris Stone in Glass' graceful "Echorus for 2 Violins and Strings." As impressive as those performances were, Hope ended the program not as soloist, but as the orchestra's concertmaster. Playing the Six Romanian Folk Dances by Bartok -- another composer Menuhin revered -- Hope joined the NCCO players in a reading that summoned the spirited, Old World essence of these short episodes in bold, shapely ensemble sound.

Read the rest of the review here