New Century finally plays Mondavi; worth wait

Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg
The Sacramento Bee

By Edward Ortiz

It's hard to imagine any ensemble making a more impressive debut at the Mondavi Center than that of the New Century Chamber Orchestra on Saturday evening.

The 19-year-old Bay Area ensemble has been led since 2008 by firebrand violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg. These fresh-faced musicians, whose orchestra operates much like symphonic collectives common in Europe, were smart in picking the iconoclastic Salerno-Sonnenberg as musical leader, for there is nothing ordinary about her.

Salerno-Sonnenberg's musical approaches are sincere and her performances have an electric edge. She brings star quality to the stage – a very good thing for this ensemble despite its collectivism.

On Saturday, musical spark and intelligent musicianship were at play in what was the orchestra’s last concert of a taxing, month long national tour. But you wouldn't have known it by the fresh and powerful performance from these 19 musicians.

This chamber orchestra made the argument that it should be a regular on the classical music schedule at the Mondavi in Davis.

The argument was made most elegantly and fervently with the performance of Astor Piazzolla's distinctive "The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires," from an arrangement by Leonid Desyatnikov. Written as four individual works that pay homage to Antonio Vivaldi's "Four Seasons," the lilt of tango is never far from its technically demanding intentions.

Salerno-Sonnenberg took to center stage for this work and offered much sizzle on the violin. At times, when Desyatnikov asked for glissandos and pizzicatos, Salerno-Sonnenberg attacked the strings with caged violence. In certain cadenzas, she seemed so enmeshed in the music that, after sparking out a set of notes, she looked as if she had just returned from a faraway dream. Swaying and dancing rhythmically, she led a super-dense performance from the orchestra. There was stellar playing, of the emotional but clear variety, especially from principal cellist Susan Babini, who owns a big, bold and emotional sound. She put it to good use on the tasty cello passages in "Autumn."

The only drawback here was the arrangement, which is more interested in creating a forum for fast-paced string virtuosity than it is with tapping into Piazzolla's love of a certain back-alley Latin American urban soul. The result was that some of the color in Piazzolla's music was not always savored.

That work was paired with another that draws inspiration from indigenous music: Bela Bartok's "Romanian Folk Dances." Like Piazzolla's "Seasons," this work is melodically rich and emotionally expansive. Here, Salerno-Sonnenberg led the orchestra from her chair, and it proved a vivid performance – at once buoyant and melancholic to honor the personality of each of the work's six movements.

Tchaikovsky's Serenade for Strings in C Major, which closed the evening, was performed as if the orchestra were reading a densely crafted love letter. The main theme was given an almost burnished heft. And the Elegie was performed with romantic fervor. The work was a great contrast to the Piazzolla and Bartok, which showed off the best qualities of the ensemble.