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New Century's superb Bolcom-Strauss program repeats through the weekend

Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg
Mercury News

By Richard Scheinin

The New Century Chamber Orchestra's latest program is a treat. No weak spots, just solid inspiration: superb playing by the string orchestra, smart selection of repertory, a night of music-making that follows a clear arc, unfolding like chapters in a book that you don't want to put down.

The San Francisco-based orchestra has been around since 1992, a reliably excellent group. Still, it seems to have ascended several more steps under the leadership of violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, now in her second season as music director and concertmaster. It's not just a matter of having a celebrity on board; she seems to incite real pleasure and excitement among the players, a simpatico feeling.

It suffused Thursday's performance at First Congregational Church in Berkeley. The program — which repeats tonight in Palo Alto, Saturday in San Francisco, and Sunday in Marin — moved in an inexorable way from lightness to darkness, from good cheer to soul-churning turmoil. It never lost its sense of beauty. And its closing chapter was nearly overwhelming.

The first half was given over to music by William Bolcom, the orchestra's featured composer this season. One of the deans of American composition, Bolcom, 71, trained a long time ago at Mills College in Oakland under Darius Milhaud, who was famous for absorbing so-called "vernacular" music (in his case, jazz) into classical structures.

Like his mentor, Bolcom, a Pulitzer Prize winner, has always been interested in the vernacular. He composed "Three Rags" for piano in 1970 (when he was a key player in the ragtime revival) and has since arranged it for other settings, including for string orchestra.

New Century's performance Thursday was pristine, delicate and often very quiet, allowing Bolcom's personal language (his ice-skating harmonies, slipping and sliding and teasing the ear) and masterly handling of string textures to speak.

"Poltergeist," the first of the set, was light as spun sugar, with ghostly glissandos and some sneaked-in swing rhythm: a happy rag for the Addams Family. "Graceful Ghost" conveyed one of the essences of many a good rag: humble grandeur. "Incineratorag" was about elbows and angles, fits and starts and strutting rhythm: mischievous memories of Scott Joplin.

Bolcom's "Serenata Notturna (Serenade No. 3) for Oboe and String Quartet, which followed, now moved the program into a lyric shadow world of midnight terrors. This four-movement piece, from 2005, uses textural effects and rhythmic detail — and Bolcom's "funny" harmonies — to a whole other end.

Laura Griffiths, an oboist who never seems to tire or falter, regardless of circumstances, was the exquisite soloist. The Scherzo required speed and staccato precision, then — slowing to a lullaby — her full plummy-ness of sound. Partnering Griffiths with extreme refinement was the string quartet, culled from the orchestra: Salerno-Sonnenberg, first violin; Candace Guirao, second violin; Anna Kruger, viola; Susan Babini, cello.

After intermission, there was Richard Strauss's "Metamorphosen" from 1945, a lamentation from war's end and the program's closing chapter. Composed for 23 strings, each with a separate part, the piece builds incrementally: a quiet choir of cellos and bass viols is joined by a pair of violas, then more violas, then the violins. It keeps piling on, working its motifs, one drawn from the Funeral March of Beethoven's "Eroica."

Thursday, the unity of the orchestra, which plays without a conductor, was remarkable. The performance was a collective moan, arriving in waves — a whole sea of suffering souls, it sounded like.