New Chamber Century Orchestra

09.12.09
Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg
San Francisco Chronicle

By Joshua Kosman

Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg and the New Century Chamber Orchestra opened their second season together Thursday night with a program of old works in new guises. The notes themselves, by Bach and Mussorgsky, were so familiar that a listener could practically sing along. But they were arrayed in spiffy - and sometimes gaudy - new clothes, and that made all the difference.

The headliner was a new arrangement by Clarice Assad of Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition." Hundreds of orchestrators have taken a crack at this group of short piano pieces over the years, but Ravel's ingenious orchestral version remains the king of the hill.

Assad's "Pictures," scored for string orchestra with piano and percussion, takes some delightful liberties in some spots while hewing close to the source in others. The result, in a vigorous and well-balanced performance in Berkeley's First Congregational Church, offered a winningly different take on the music.
Assad creates a wealth of textural variety from her limited orchestral resources, in part by drawing on various percussion instruments and having the pianist pluck or strum the instrument's strings. And with some judicious touching up here and there - particularly in the "Gnomus" movement, which gets some new and extra-spooky harmonies to go with its creepy glissandos - Assad puts her own stamp on the piece.

Most striking is "The Old Castle," in which Assad picks up the tempo, pumps up the rhythm and uses the Arabian drum called the tar to turn Mussorgsky's mournful musical watercolor into a vibrant desert dance.
Some other decisions are less persuasive, especially the glockenspiel that turns the opening "Promenade" into a Christmas commercial. And the final "Great Gate of Kiev," perhaps inevitably, sounds slightly wan compared with Ravel's full-orchestra explosion.

Still, this is a canny and often lovely rendition, and Thursday's performance, delivered with plenty of vitality, made the case for it.

The all-Bach first half began with Mark Starr's orchestral version of the great D-Minor Chaconne, sounding plush and smug in its new finery. The idea of orchestrating this landmark of the solo violin repertory isn't necessarily objectionable in theory, but in practice it turns out that much of what makes the piece important is bound up with the sound of a single violin.

That much was clear from the opening measures, in which the big chords that emerge with so much gritty effort from a violin sounded blandly homogenized. Later passages came off equally smoothly, and a pinnacle of athletic fury turned into a stretch of easy listening.

For more punch, there was Bach's Concerto in D Minor, BWV 1052, a reconstruction by Robert Reitz of a lost violin concerto now known only through Bach's later version for harpsichord. Salerno-Sonnenberg, as soloist, brought urgency and drama to the performance.