New Century Chamber Orchestra Serenades, Dances, at Pick-Staiger

Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg
Chicago Classical Music

By Elliot Mandel

Northwestern University’s Winter Chamber Music Festival came to a close Monday evening, but not before the New Century Chamber Orchestra blew into Pick-Staiger Concert Hall. The orchestra, led by versatile violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, presented a program tailored to the ensemble’s infectious personality and that of its exuberant leader.

The orchestra set the mood with Hugo Wolf’s effervescent Italian Serenade, and moved quickly to Béla Bartók’s Romanian Folk Dances. The hearty, though brief, vignettes were dispatched with danceable playing, a perfect introduction to The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires by Astor Piazzolla.

Perhaps not intended to be performed as a suite, Piazzolla’s Four Seasons are no less atmospheric than Vivaldi’s set of four violin concertos from which the Argentinean composer drew his inspiration. Piazzolla’s Seasons present a formidable challenge to any ensemble that attempts all four. Even if an orchestra can master the supreme technical difficulties, the music requires the passion of a performer like Salerno-Sonnenberg to do justice to the artistic and emotional depth. The Seasons are as dense as the South American humidity and, at times, as chaotic as Buenos Aires traffic; they are bound by the beauty of Piazzolla’s ever-present tango.

Taking her place in the middle of the orchestra, Salerno-Sonnenberg pried intentionally harsh sounds from the entire range of her violin, and swung her hips to the propelling rhythms of Anthony Manzo’s bass. She twirled Vivaldi riffs over tango syncopation, ornamenting the virtuosity of Piazzolla’s writing. The orchestra wore the music on their faces, emphasizing the pained, violent, and amorous tendencies of Piazzolla’s tangos; Susan Babini seemed to say everything in the cello solo of "Winter."

Tchaikovksy’s Serenade for Strings is one of the most beloved pieces in chamber orchestra repertoire, and the New Century reminded us by letting the lush opening ring through the hall. Salerno-Sonnenberg danced in her chair, but blended with the rest of the ensemble, which returned her emotional cues with equal flair. The orchestra sustained its richness through the muted Elégie, and played the rollicking Cossack finale as they had Bartók and Piazzolla earlier. Tchaikovksy’s sweeping melodies were well-served by each section of the orchestra.

By the time Salerno-Sonnenberg announced two encores (an Alfred Schnittke polka and Gershwin’s “Bess, You is My Woman Now”), the ensemble’s obvious enthusiasm for the music and each other created that elusive connection between performer and audience that is achieved when the music is good and everyone is having fun.