Wagner fans travel all over the world to take in performances of the "Ring Cycle." New-music aficionados would do well to learn the way to Le Petit Trianon, the home of the San Jose Chamber Orchestra, which is doing its part to produce exciting concerts featuring living composers. At the ensemble's January 8 recital, the quick out-numbered the dead by 3 to 2 -- not bad odds for classical music, and those three extant writers were all in the hall to take in much-deserved adulation.
The climax was the dynamic, rhythmic, and bluesy Tiento (Fantasy) by Michael Touchi, a tour-de-force of minimalist and vernacular-tinged energy for eight cellos and string orchestra. Spinning off from Heitor Villa-Lobos's celloistic octet Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5 (also heard, and printed without the final titular consonants in the program), Touchi ups the ante by sending his cellists into contrapuntal array and disarray against the standing violins, violas, and bass hovering about. The riffs are relentless and appealing, and coloristic and call-and-response touches made their telling effects under the able baton of founder / music director Barbara Day Turner.
Previous to this, the Villa-Lobos shone forth from soprano Ronit Widman-Levy, in a haunting rendition that captured the essence of this baroque-and-brazilian mix. Like some surrealistic pillowy guitar, the cellos pluck and bow against operatic outpourings and hummings, making the case yet again for this most popular of the composer's works.
Related syncretism was evoked in Elena Ruhr's intriguing and inventive Cloud Atlas, after the novel by David Mitchell, where the beautiful solo cellist par excellence Jennifer Kloetzel (also of the Cypress String Quartet) found herself amidst a mixture of stylistic influences, old-and-new, atonal and neo-tonal-blue, all linked motivically by a perfect fifth, followed by another a half-step higher. By contrast, Anica Gallindo's innocent and sophisticated A Wintery Tale offered a pure, neo-romantic world of gorgeous tone and cinematic splendor.
Introducing each half of the program were seminal works by Johann Sebastian Bach, the first the well-known Cello Suite No. 1, again by the radiant Kloetzel, who took the opening Prelude at a breathtaking speed and articulated each phrase of the clever Minuets with passion and precision, bringing a lithe spirit to the concluding Gigue. Lazlo Varga's cello-quartet transcription of the Bach solo violin Sarabande and Bourree rounded out the program with intelligence and verve.