in: Reviews

November 24, 2011

New, Old, Borrowed, Blue (rather, Ragtime)

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Nadia Salerno-Sonnenberg has twice before performed in Mechanics Hall, but that was roughly a quarter-century ago. She referred to her previous performances in greeting the audience on November 9, expressing the double satisfaction of performing in “this wonderful space” and especially in being able to show her group, the New Century Chamber Orchestra, a San Francisco-based chamber orchestra of nineteen string players, being presented for the first time by Music Worcester.    

The New Century Chamber Orchestra is almost twenty years old now, but, despite some recording activity, it has remained a largely local ensemble. The naming of Salerno-Sonnenberg, a violinist with a long record as a dynamic soloist and chamber performer, as music director in 2008 can be understood as a bid for wider renown. This year has been particularly fruitful in that regard, since they undertook two substantial tours — one in February to the Midwest and California, and the second this month to the Northeast.

On the evidence of the Mechanics Hall concert, the New Century Chamber Orchestra is a crackerjack ensemble, with a high level of technical polish and the kind of precise attention to expressive detail that one finds in the best chamber ensembles, a comparison I make because the performances are mostly conductor-less (once Salerno-Sonnenberg, who plays from the concertmaster’s chair, gets them started), so they rely on the kind of intimate listening and understanding of, say, a top string quartet.

The program was attractively varied, with something old, something new, something borrowed, and something — if not “blue,” at least ragtime. Actually there were two “borrowed” pieces, works originally written for chamber ensemble performed here with two or more strings on a part. The first was one of Rossini’s youthful string sonatas (composed at the age of twelve!) for two violins, cello, and double bass — a charming work foreshadowing the melodic character of the operas Rossini would start composing almost immediately after that. Samuel Barber’s Adagio was the one familiar work specifically for string orchestra on the program, and it offered a beautifully paced arch of rising intensity and a balancing fall into its final moment of repose.

The new piece was composed expressly for the ensemble and its director, a kind of concerto-serenade by William Bolcom, who had previously written his Third Violin Sonata for Salerno-Sonnenberg. In an interview printed in the program, the composer commented, “I didn’t want a usual concerto. This is why I’ve liked serenades, divertimenti, and all forms that allow soloists in other roles than the usual soloist vs. orchestra one. There is some virtuosity for the soloist in Romanza, but that is not the point of the piece. The point is, rather, the emotional climate that the piece generates.”

Bolcom’s Romanza is in three movements—Romanza, Valse Funèbre, and Cakewalk. The first two of these bespeak a darkly expressive romanticism, growing out of nineteenth-century styles, but harmonically rather more astringent, yet with lyrical flow. The finale comes close to the ragtime tradition which Bolcom helped revive and which he has drawn on for a number of compositions. Here it is vibrantly energetic, essentially exploding out of the somewhat suppressed passions of the two earlier movements to produce a foot-stamping finale

The second “borrowed” piece on the program served as the closing number to the formal program: Mendelssohn’s youthful Octet for strings, probably the greatest composition ever written by a composer so young. Of course, it was intended for eight players, and here it was performed with essential two instruments on a part. Perhaps nothing could have shown the sheer technical virtuosity of the New Century players better than this, since two on a part makes for the riskiest possible ensemble playing: the slightest inaccuracy between any two players becomes immediately and painfully obvious. Here there was no cause to worry; the sonority was heavier than would be achieved with just eight players, but the ensemble was extraordinary. Mendelssohn’s tempo marking for the opening movement is “Moderate allegro, but with fire.” The New Century players took it lickety split — not so “moderate,” but with lots of fire.

Following the equally zippy Presto that concludes the Mendelssohn, the New Century ensemble offered two contrasting encores, Incinerator Rag by William Bolcom and a truly evocative arrangement for string orchestra with obbligato violin of Todo sentimento, a Brazilian popular song by Chico Buarque arranged for the New Century Chamber Orchestra by its sometime composer-in-residence, the gifted Clarice Assad. A work like this crosses the boundaries of popular and classical and brought a satisfying moment of repose to end a very satisfying concert.

Ed: The email with this review was in cyberspace for two weeks; hence its tardy posting.

Steven Ledbetter is a free-lance writer and lecturer on music. He got his BA from Pomona College and PhD from NYU in Musicology. He taught at Dartmouth College in the 1970s, then became program annotator at the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1979 to 1997.

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