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Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg "together" with the New Century Chamber Orchestra

08.17.09
Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg
San Francisco Examiner

By Stephen Smoliar

Together is the name of the first CD recording of the New Century Chamber Orchestra under its new director, Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, released on Salerno-Sonnenberg's own NSS label.  This recording is an excellent opportunity to review two of the key performances of Salerno-Sonnenberg's first season with the Orchestra, the Impressions suite by Featured Composer Clarice Assad and Astor Piazzolla's The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires.  It also serves as an amuse-gueule prior to the beginning of the Orchestra's 2009–2010 season in about three weeks' time.

Unfortunately, I was not able to take advantage of Assad's residency with the Orchestra until the final concert of the 2008–2009 season, when I heard the world premiere of her "Dreamscapes," for solo violin (performed by Salerno-Sonnenberg) and string orchestra.  In her own notes for this work, Assad wrote about its "maze of unpredictability and uncertainty;"  and, while I found that maze challenging to negotiate on first hearing, I wrote at the time that it "left me both fascinated and eager to hear it again" (which I continue to regard as high praise for any new composition).  Impressions is a more approachable composition;  or perhaps it just was for me, because I felt that it approached the challenge of composing for an all-string ensemble in the same spirit that Benjamin Britten had brought to his early (1937) composition of variations on a theme by his teacher, Frank Bridge.  Not only is the first movement of Assad's suite an explicit set of variations;  but also two of her movements use forms from the Bridge variations, a waltz and a perpetuum mobile.  Furthermore, like the Bridge variations, the suite concludes by reflecting back on its very opening.  Most important, however, is the way in which Assad may have taken the diversity of sonorities that Britten conceived for his variations and developed a new diversity entirely of her own making.

Similarly, one can guess from its title that Piazzolla's composition (actually four separate pieces subsequently collected and reorchestrated for Gidon Kremer) is a reflection on earlier source material.  The scope of that reflection, however, extended beyond Antonio Vivaldi, including a not-particularly-veiled reference to Johann Pachelbel and a variety of idioms from the violin repertoire extending all the way into the twentieth century.  Those familiar with "Four, for Tango," which Piazzolla composed for the Kronos Quartet, know the wild abandon that he can bring to his composition for strings, high-energy rhythms with glissandi that practically fly off the score pages into the stratosphere;  and this Four Seasons suite is just as wild.

The remainder of the disc consists of two arrangements of familiar works from the early twentieth century:  Béla Bartók's 1915 suite of six Romanian folk dances and "Bess, You Is My Woman Now," from George Gershwin's opera, Porgy and Bess.  The Bartók arrangement was by Salerno-Sonnenberg herself, replacing the instrumental solos that Bartók had conceived for his orchestral version with a characteristic set of string solos.  The Gershwin was a transcription by David Rimelis of Jascha Heifetz' arrangement for violin and piano.  If Salerno-Sonnenberg's orchestration of Bartók is not as colorful as the original, the performance does full justice to the folk spirit of the music, while the Gershwin arrangement reminds us of how successful he was in making the shift from song writer to opera composer.  Taken as a whole, this CD is an excellent celebration of the "new generation" of the New Century Chamber Orchestra.