Violinist Salerno-Sonnenberg and colleagues sizzle in Piazzolla suite

02.03.11
Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg
Cleveland Plain Dealer

By Donald Rosenberg

We hardly need to be reminded of seasonal matters these days, even in musical terms. Another performance of Vivaldi's "The Four Seasons" could be cause for major gnashing of teeth.

And yet, violinist Najda Salerno-Sonnenberg and the New Century Chamber Orchestra had no qualms – and didn't need to – about presenting a tango-infused complement to Vivaldi during their concert Wednesday at the Cleveland Museum of Art's Gartner Auditorium in the Viva! & Gala series.

Having arrived Tuesday before the storm, music director Salerno-Sonnenberg and her 19-member string ensemble from the San Francisco Bay Area were more than warmed-up for Astor Piazzolla's "The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires" the following night. They were, to put it mildly, in sizzling form in this suave and haunting music.

The piece is a 20th-century composer's homage to an 18th-century colleague, whose music occasionally peeks through the seductive, slashing and soaring textures. Like Vivaldi, Piazzolla places the solo violin in atmospheric settings surrounded by multiple strings.

It's a dazzling workout for a soloist of virtuoso technique and intrepid personality, qualities that certainly apply to Salerno-Sonnenberg, an independent musical spirit for nearly three decades.

The expressive and physical extremes that long have been Salerno-Sonnenberg hallmarks turned out to be just right for Piazzolla's extravagant showpiece. Where the music scrapes, scoops and swoons, the violinist was there with bow hairs flying. Where Piazzolla twists rhythms like sweaty bodies intertwining, Salerno-Sonnenberg provided the sonic and visual stuff.

The fine New Century players responded to their leader's fervor with equal intensity. There were charismatic solos by several principals, especially cellist Susan Babini and violist Cassandra Lynne Richburg. Bass player Anthony Manzo's input was sonorous and impish.

In the night's other works, Salerno-Sonnenberg led from the concertmaster's chair, exerting firm control over phrasing, dynamics and colors, sometimes to quirky effect. Wolf's Italian Serenade received frisky, nimble treatment, while Bartok's Romanian Folk Dances went their exuberant and exotic way, thanks partly to debonair solos from Salerno-Sonnenberg and peers.

The orchestra also immersed itself into Tchaikovsky's Serenade for Strings, playing with warmth, vigor and mannerisms that often shifted the emphasis to details, rather than the big picture.

Salerno-Sonnenberg made an overheated thing of Gershwin's "Bess, You Is My Woman Now" as the second encore, but the first – Alfred Schnittke's Polka – was a subversive delight. Hot, you might say, and ideal for a frigid winter's night.