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A Musical Crossing Seas Apart

March 21, 2014

ChanticleerTwo of the Bay Area’s choice ensembles got together for a spring pleasure cruise, March 21-25. Sailing under the Atlantic Crossing banner, the New Century Chamber Orchestra and Chanticleer set out to explore the rich musical era between the two world wars. That’s when the great waves of talent from strife-stressed Europe and elsewhere landed on American shores.

The program’s manifest included such familiar names as Bartók and Weill; the film composer Miklós Rózsa (Spellbound, Ben-Hur), represented here by a Hungarian-flavored movement from his Concerto for Strings; an Offenbach adaptation by the German Comedian Harmonists ensemble, established in the 1920s; and the all-Americans Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn. Chanticleer crooned “Tea for Two.” The orchestra and vocalists joined forces on a big-hits medley from Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess. A violinist dressed up — and sang — as the lethal Macheath, from Weill’s The Threepenny Opera. It was a treat-filled bill, with plenty of familiar sweets.

That said, the evening came off as something less than the sum of its often sparkling parts. Missing was a sense of what all this music was doing on the same program and how the various pieces spoke to and informed each other (or didn’t). Some historical and cultural background, perhaps from a spoken narrative or a substantive program essay, would have deepened the listener’s appreciation and the concert’s resonance.

As it was, the audience drifted from a set of cryptic Bartók Romanian Folk Dances to a dreamy Comedian Harmonists setting of Milton Ager and Jack Yellen’s Wochenend’ und Sonnenschein to Weill’s “Mack the Knife” and Gershwin’s “Summertime.” After an infectious account of Ellington’s “It Don’t Mean a Thing if It Ain’t Got That Swing,” in a terrific arrangement by Clarice Assad, a big crowd for the March 21 performance at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music responded with a standing ovation. It was indeed a festive and decisive send-off after a meandering trip.

The all-string ensemble, under NCCO music director and principal violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, sent Atlantic Crossing afloat with a deliciously light-fingered performance of “Midnight Bells,” a Fritz Kreisler showpiece adapted from Richard Heuberger’s 1898 Austrian operetta Der Opernball. The players gave this silky little waltz such a pretty sheen (a few early missteps notwithstanding) that the image of an ocean liner’s elegant orchestra swaying lightly on the transatlantic waves came to mind.

The NCCO was smartly dressed for the trip, with the women in black and the men sporting white ties against their black shirt fronts. Handsome, too, was the nest of stage-left café tables, a place for the tuxedo-clad Chanticleer singers to politely perch during the orchestra-only portions of the program.

The orchestra hits its pre-intermission peak in Rózsa’s Allegro giusto movement from his 1943 Concerto (the same year that Bartók was composing his famed Concerto for Orchestra elsewhere in New York state, an interesting tidbit from the program notes). After a nervous, chittery opening, the Rózsa extract emerged in a series of squalls, offset by a cunningly poised theme for the cellos and bass. Moments of lightness blurred into a heavy Hungarian folk tread, the whole thing finished off with an exciting, upward thrusting climax.

Chanticleer, precise, pure of tone but occasionally rather pallid, made their strongest and most varied impression in three Hindemith songs. Full of haunting melodic lines and shifting inner harmonies, these selections from Six Chansons of 1930 filtered by in a shifting, quicksilver light. “O la biche” evoked a deer in the forest in an awe-struck high range and melting phrases. A dreamily floating swam (“Un Cygne”) vanished into the breathless sprint of “Puisque tout passe,” a bittersweet, fleet joke about the shortness of time. The star-studded Porgy and Bess medley came after the break, with the NCCO and Chanticleer working together in another attractive Assad arrangement. Alto Cortez Mitchell did a first-rate act of vocal mimicry as a lofty, close-your-eyes-and-he’s-a-soprano version of “Summertime.” Salerno-Sonnenberg followed that with a meaty, double stop-enhanced “Bess, You Is My Woman Now,” her violin every bit as proud and assertive as any flesh-and-blood Porgy.

The collaboration bloomed again in the Ellington-Strayhorn medley that closed the program. Chanticleer sang gorgeously in “Lush Life.” The strings caught fire. The players and singers alike made little hissing engine sounds for “Take the A Train,” in a transporting fantasia on Strayhorn’s jazz classic. Fingers snapped. Feet thumped the floor. The performers all fell into some lively urban chatter.

Moments later, with a bright string flurry, this two-hour excursion that skirted deeper waters was done.

Steven Winn is a San Francisco based free-lance writer and critic and frequent City Arts & Lectures interviewer. His work has appeared in Art News, California, Humanities, Manhattan, Symphony Magazine and The San Francisco Chronicle.