Bolcom debuts edgy, high-intensity 'Romanza'

Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg
San Francisco Chronicle

By Joshua Kosman

There's a good reason why it's impossible to pigeonhole the work of composer William Bolcom. His music isn't so much polystylistic as omnistylistic - a blithely all-embracing mix of neo-Romanticism, modernism, ragtime, pop, jazz and anything else that might catch his fancy.

The familiar musical thumbprints are at work again in "Romanza," the new chamber concerto Bolcom wrote on a commission for the New Century Chamber Orchestra and its music director, violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg. This agreeable three-movement opus had its world premiere Thursday night in Berkeley's First Congregational Church, as the centerpiece of the group's compact season-ending program.

Bolcom, in fact, has been the focus of the entire season, as part of Salerno-Sonnenberg's annual "featured composer" initiative. And "Romanza," which runs a tidy 20 minutes, embodies his characteristic resourcefulness and clarity.

Like many a concerto before it, "Romanza" concentrates its main emotional weight in the first movement. This is a dark and impassioned stretch of music built around two basic ideas - a long-breathed violin melody set against an accompaniment of two-note sighing figures, and a flurry of jaunty dance rhythms. The harmonic language is grainy and rough-hewn, but the Romantic rhetoric - even to the extent of including a cadenza for the soloist at just the right spot - is straight out of Sibelius.

The finale, titled "Cakewalk," is a straightforward jape, but in between comes what struck me as the piece's most interesting stretch, a "Funeral Waltz" of all things. Bolcom's music lives up to both sides of that designation, moving in a mournful but compelling 3/4 time that supports a strong-willed melody.

"Romanza" was written with Salerno-Sonnenberg in mind, and it shows - this is edgy, high-intensity music, and she delivered the solo part superbly.

The rest of the program was less ambitious but no less enjoyable. The evening began with a lustrous, sweet-toned account of the Barber "Adagio for Strings," its surges and mournful pauses impeccably judged.

Copland's "Appalachian Spring," in the Suite for 13 instruments, sounded crisp and strong-limbed, with clarinetist Jerry Simas contributing a sinuous turn during "Simple Gifts." The program concluded with more Copland, the "Hoe-Down" from "Rodeo" enlivened by some free-form improvisations from violinist Evan Price.