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Spot-On Send-Off

May 19, 2009

New Century Chamber Orchestra

“Shadows and Light” was the theme of the final four concerts of the New Century Chamber Orchestra’s current season, with the repertoire selected for references to the night. But what really shone through the five pieces on the variegated program was how wonderfully the music and the players were suited to each other. On the NCCO’s last stop, at San Francisco’s Herbst Theatre on May 19, the evening’s world premiere, Dreamscapes by commissioned composer Clarice Assad, certainly sounded like it was handmade for the colors and strengths of Music Director and violinist Nadia Salerno-Sonnenberg and her 19-member ensemble. Those same qualities and virtues made it hard to conjecture a more able performance of Bernard Hermann’s challenging Psycho suite. And the remaining chestnuts, by Mozart, Borodin, and Johann Strauss, Jr., were all zestfully refreshed and warmly served.

Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik (Serenade in G, K. 525) not only kicked off the nocturnal theme but let the NCCO display its good-natured approach to the classics from the get-go, embracing folksiness (in the piece’s opening and closing Allegros) and lyrical dreaminess over differently paced variations (in the Romanze). The ensemble’s light touch generally allows the music to speak without virtuoso showiness. Intonation is mostly spot-on, and the only persistant problem was a tendency to pull off notes at the end of phrases too quickly, not allowing the tone to be securely seated.

Hermann’s assemblage of cues from the 1960 Alfred Hitchcock film Psycho, as a suite for string orchestra offered a testament to his solid musical grounding. A former violinist, Hermann had been excited by the prospect of scoring the film with strings alone, and his masterful deployment of a string section’s different voices is evident from the first of the suite’s 11 parts, the Prelude. The spectral architecture of "The City" was nicely structured by the NCCO, and several other parts, particularly "The Madhouse" and the Finale, though brief, were so artfully composed as to deserve stand-alone status. For the NCCO, the suite worked handsomely to highlight different subsections, the bass bullying ominously in "The Murder," the cellos strongly stating the film’s prevailing theme in "The Rainstorm," and the violins screeching in artful and eery unison in "The Knife," one of the most famous passages in film music.

Completing her inaugural season as music director, Salerno-Sonnenberg made brief, personable remarks from the stage, advising the audience to refrain from applause after the Borodin Nocturne, which opened the program’s second half, to allow a smooth segue to the Assad premiere. The Nocturne, from the Russian composer’s String Quartet No. 2 in D Major, was presented as a delicious layering of the ensemble’s instruments, the most romantic of the evening’s offerings.

Things heated up during Assad’s Dreamscapes, with Salerno-Sonnenberg standing to solo and adopting an appropriately athletic approach to what the composer, in her program notes, describes as “this notion of awareness versus subconscious.” Like Hermann and Borodin, Assad arrays various the strings to make both the parts (including soloists) and the whole support her compositional concept, in the process showcasing the NCCO’s individual and collective skills. This is an exciting and worthy addition to the repertoire, and Assad was called to the stage to receive a well-deserved bouquet.

The Overture from Strauss’s Die Fledermaus, as arranged by Mats Lidström, concluded the evening (and the season) in the spirit of a merry strike party, the powerful cellos and bass providing the pulse for a lusty Viennese waltz by the violins and violas, with all eyes perceptibly on Salerno-Sonnenberg in anticipation of the capping accelerando. The contagious fun earned a standing ovation at the Herbst.

Jeff Kaliss has featured and reviewed classical, jazz, rock, and world musics and other entertainment for the San Francisco Chronicle and a host of other regional, national, international, and web-based publications. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from San Francisco State University, and is the author of I Want to Take You Higher: The Life and Times of Sly & the Family Stone (Backbeat Books) and numerous textbook and encyclopedia entries, album liner notes, and festival program notes.