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New Century Chamber Orchestra 

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Young blood: Krista Bennion Feeney steps up as new music director for the Grammy-nominated New Century Chamber Orchestra.

String Fever

NCCO's new director has passion for innovation

"RELAX, close your eyes, and just let go," suggests Krista Bennion Feeney, her voice growing soft and hypnotic. "Close your eyes," she repeats. "Wherever the music takes you, go there. Let your left brain drop away, and let the music sink in. Don't think about it. Just relax.

"And keep your eyes closed."

This might sound like some New Age guided-visualization tape. But actually it's the way Feeney--an accomplished violinist and the recently appointed music director and concertmaster of the New Century Chamber Orchestra--believes an audience should prepare itself for the music of the late John Cage.

"I usually close my eyes when I listen to music," Feeney explains. "Especially with Cage, because he requires a concentration that is intense. There's a lot of stillness in his work that is very Eastern. It puts me into a trance."

Cage, of course, is the pioneering American composer who shattered musical conventions with his rule-breaking experiments. His compositions challenge ears and expectations, inspiring audiences and musicians alike to reconsider their relationship to music--and almost sparking a few concert hall riots along the way.

"Some people hate it," Feeney admits with a laugh. "It's so different from what people expect to hear in a concert hall.

"Western classical music is heard in a very different way," she says. "With Western music, you sit in the audience, and it's like you go on a little journey. You leave from your home and you travel to beautiful places. By the end, you've come safely back to where you started. Home again.

"With the music of John Cage, though," she concludes, "you never leave home. You're just there."

IF FEENEY seems slightly unconventional--both conversationally and musically--it only goes to illustrate why the 40-year-old virtuoso is a perfect fit with the New Century Chamber Orchestra. After all, this Grammy-nominated ensemble has a reputation for pushing the envelope.

Founded by former Bay Area violinist Stuart Canin, the San Francisco-based company boasts 17 members--and no conductor. During live performances, the musicians take their cues from one another, performing standing up. The informality of this arrangement creates a remarkable sense of intimacy and allows an unprecedented level of spontaneity. Feeney joined the NCCO last year, replacing the outgoing Canin after a national search for an artistic director with collaborative inclinations and very creative ideas.

How creative? Consider the New Century Chamber Orchestra's March program.

"Time Past and Time Present"--to be presented just four times over four days at four Bay Area locations--is an interweaving of Antonio Vivaldi's popular masterpiece The Four Seasons with Cage's lesser-known Quartet in Four, itself a meditation on the seasons of the year.

Feeney has devised an innovative program, alternating between Vivaldi and Cage to contrast the composers' musical styles and broaden the meditative experience. The program will begin with Cage's "Summer," then move into Vivaldi's "Autumn," spinning through the year until it all cycles back to Vivaldi's "Summer."

Of particular importance to Feeney is the fact that each musician has an opportunity to shine. "You'll have a chance," she explains, "to hear every single person in the orchestra play at least one solo."

Adding spice to the event, the musicians will take turns reading the rarely mentioned lyrical poems that Vivaldi wrote to accompany The Four Seasons. Each poem will be read in its original Italian, then in English, accompanied by performances of corresponding musical "scenes"--orchestral re-creations of gnats and biting flies, the strike of lightning, the lonely crying of a shepherd boy.

"I'm curious to see what will happen," Feeney remarks gleefully, adding that the unusual structure of the program was designed, in part, to allow audiences to experience Cage in smaller doses. "I love the introspection of Cage, and there's a lot of outwardly joyful playing in the Vivaldi that will be calmed by the Cage.

"I don't think Cage would be uptight about our doing that," she adds, laughing. "It's not a sin or anything. He was a pretty flexible guy."

FLEXIBILITY seems to be a guiding principle for Feeney. A native of Menlo Park, she's performed as a member of the Orchestra of St. Luke's and the San Francisco Symphony, and with the New York String Orchestra in performances at Carnegie Hall and the Lincoln Arts Center.

With St. Luke's Chamber Ensemble, she played on 10,000 Maniacs' 1989 song "Jubilee." With the renowned Loma Mar Quartet, she performed at Linda McCartney's 1998 memorial service, playing original quartet arrangements that Paul McCartney composed for his wife. Feeney and Loma Mar recorded those and other McCartney pieces as part of the former Beatle's 1999 CD Working Classical.

"There was never a conscious choice about becoming a musician," Feeney explains. "When I was growing up, we lived with my grandmother in a big house with three pianos. We were surrounded by music all day long, European folk music, classical music, some popular music. It was a very important part of my life.

"I can't imagine living without it," she adds.

Joining the NCCO has been a delight, Feeney readily remarks, even though the commute--she now lives in upstate New York--is a killer.

"I've benefited so much from being a part of this group," Feeney says, "It's been good for my playing. It's been good in so many ways."

Future programs include one that Feeney can only hint at. She plans to take a particular rock-and-roll album and reinterpret the songs for the NCCO. "It won't be like the Boston Pops," she promises. "We won't be doing orchestral versions of rock songs. We'll be doing real rock and roll, as a 17-piece orchestra."

Just talking about it makes Feeney laugh.

"We are programming things knowing that certain people are going to take objection," Feeney admits. "We do it anyway. New Century is committed to doing something daring on every program. That's our reputation, and that's what we're striving for. In this Cage and Vivaldi program, it is a bit daring, but it will also be fun.

"I think it's obvious," Feeney says, "that I like concerts to be fun."

From the March 15-21, 2001 issue of the Northern California Bohemian.

© Metro Publishing Inc.

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