“Visions and Installations”, the second concert in the New World Symphony's “Viola Visions” week, consisted of three works written after the Symphony's founding 32 years ago, and one that missed the cut by only 30 years. And yet for all the brilliance of color, sound and imagination the viola showed in music by Nico Muhly, George Benjamin and the interloper Luciano Berio (his Chemins II was written in 1967), the evening was haunted by the simplest, least modern and perhaps most timeless piece, Betty Olivero's Neharo't Neharo't.

Tabea Zimmermann © Marco Borggreve
Tabea Zimmermann
© Marco Borggreve

Olivero had originally composed her 15 minute response to pain and suffering in the context of the war in Lebanon, but the fact that its diversity of influences, from Monteverdi to Asian, also included references to Kurdish song must have meant something that was personally meaningful to Kim Kashkashian. In a world for which Neharo't Neharo't had suddenly become painfully relevant once again in a land of genocides, the man lamenting his love in the gentle ending could have been lamenting the Kurds.

The pain of Kashkashian's lean, gorgeous rhapsodizing viola was made bearable not only by the texture of the tonal fabric, enhanced by four violas from the orchestra and the recorded singing from Lea Avraham and Ilana Elia, but by the sense of community her instrumentation created: the string orchestras acting as choirs and the accordion adding a reedy substantiation of consolation, often sharing the same register with the soloist.

“Betty's writing is really great”, Kashkashian told me the day after the performance, “she knows absolutely what she's doing after her years working with Berio, who was the greatest orchestrator of the 20th century in my opinion. She knows the entire range of the instrument and uses the different parts of it for the purposes they are good for”.

The concert had begun with Chris Thompson's 2016 arrangement for viola and chamber orchestra of Muhly's Keep in Touch which was originally composed in 2005 for Nadia Sirota and an electronic track built from sampled recordings of Anohni, the lead singer of Antony and the Johnsons.

Replacing sampled electronics with analogue equivalents is nearly always a good thing especially when you include a four-man percussion department that drums cardboard boxes and bows Styrofoam bits, a tenor, and select members of the orchestra singing to fill in Anohni's intense vocalizations. In fact, Thompson's new version for viola and chamber orchestra made a perfect habitat for Sirota's occasional lyrical outpourings, but mainly manic riffs made up of twitterings, scrapings, crunches, slimy slides and inebriated wide vibratos.

While Thompson's new instrumentation was creating its commotion, Muhly on the podium was inspiring his large forces to build up serious dramatic momentum using unidentifiable noises and brass chords before Sirota went completely out of her mind with speed and serious sawing. The crowd went wild.

The performance by Tabea Zimmermann and Matthew Lipman of George Benjamin's Viola, Viola captured the spirit of Toru Takemitsu who arranged for the commission in 1997. It only lasted 11 minutes and yet it required six stands to hold the fully folded-out music pages which Zimmermann on the right read from right to left, and Lipman on the left read from left to right, perhaps in recognition of the braiding together and flowering of what the composer called “the work's cantabile center”.

A brief introduction like dueling violas led to a hypnotic quiet interlude and some powerful rhapsodizing after which tiny, tiny sounds and little bits of left hand pizzicatos took over, but not for long. The absorbing playing by the violists, moving gracefully according to some inner choreography, ended among a flurry of pizzicatos, a surprise faux ending, and at last with wonderfully strummed four-string pizzicato chords.

Neharo't Neharo't had been preceded, somewhat incongruously in retrospect, by Luciano Berio's Chemins II which after 52 years has grown to be one the most performed and recorded modern showpieces for the viola, reflecting Michael Tilson Thomas' own profound love for music which he described from the stage as “a huge leap into the unknown”.

The performance Thursday night leapt with all its might: the production crew at the Center had put San Francisco principal Jonathan Vinocour standing in the middle of a metal construction made up of angular illuminated metal railings like a go-go dancer. Images flashed here and there on the sides of the hall, more lights flashed while Vinocour relentlessly attacked the unending triple forte chords that seemed to put both his bow and viola at risk. “Pacing”, he said before the performance, “is the secret of the piece”, and pacing it got from conductor Michael Linville. There was something wistful when finally Vinocour got to sing on his instrument towards the end, as if music itself were pondering how far the viola had come and how far it was now free to go.

*****