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Ailyn Pérez shows off star power with New Century ensemble

By Joshua Kosman | Friday, September 18, 2015

Ailyn Perez

Just a few short years ago, soprano Ailyn Pérez was in the Merola Opera Program, and now she’s an international star. How’d that happen so fast?

The obvious answer — remarkable vocal talent, combined with radiance and charm — was on display in Berkeley’s First Congregational Church on Thursday night, when Pérez joined the New Century Chamber Orchestra for a first-rate season-opening program. Listening to her sing music of Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky, one couldn’t help but be amazed, and a little awestruck, at the expressive and tonal splendor on display.

The entire evening, for that matter, was short but wonderfully satisfying, and a reminder of the artistic rewards that have continued to accrue from the appointment of Nadia Salerno-Sonnenberg as the string ensemble’s music director. The programming was mostly venturesome and canny, and the execution impressively lithe, with the ideal chamber blend of precision and rhythmic freedom.

Still, it was Pérez who stole the show on this occasion with her ripe, chestnut-tinted vocal colorations and seemingly effortless phrasing. In Rachmaninoff’s “Vocalise,” the endless skein of melody — arching, falling, rising again to a new crest — sounded at once luxuriant and purposeful. Each turn of phrase and each harmonic shift had somewhere concrete to get to, but the artists were content to let us linger en route just enough to savor the sheer beauty on display.

Even more gripping was the Letter Scene from Tchaikovsky’s “Eugene Onegin,” with a string accompaniment arranged by Clarice Assad. Pérez’s performance superbly tracked the emotional ups and downs of this fraught episode, infusing the composer’s expansive lyrical phrases with a blend of reflectiveness and urgency, and turning the character’s moments of heightened anxiety into something poignant and true. Salerno-Sonnenberg and the ensemble played like an opera orchestra in the making.

The instrumental parts of the program began with a hugely powerful account of Arvo Pärt’s “Trisagion,” a 14-minute meditation shot through with strains of longing and vibrant spirituality. For a listener generally impatient with Pärt’s poker-faced religious minimalism, this was a revelation — rhetorically brilliant, harmonically simple but infinitely varied in its textural palette — and the ensemble played it magnificently.

Jennifer Higdon, whose stint as this season’s featured composer will conclude in May with a commissioned world premiere, was represented by three short excerpts from earlier works, strung together as a sort of potpourri. That didn’t turn out to show the music to its best advantage, since two scherzos and one slow movement don’t add up to a persuasive whole.

But Higdon’s writing, with its ebullient rhythms and straightforward (if sometimes sappy) harmonic language, can be hard to resist, and the orchestra made a persuasive case for all of it. Sardonic music by Shostakovich (“Elegy and Polka”) and Schnittke (“Polka” as an encore) came as a delightfully bracing counterpart.