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New Century Chamber Orchestra with Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg

11.12.11
Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg
Times Union

By Joseph Dalton

Judging from the excellent quality of playing on Saturday night at the Massry Center, there’s probably always been a wealth of talent in ranks of the New Century Chamber Orchestra, which was founded in 1992 in San Francisco. But for almost three years now they’ve had a genuine star up front, with Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg as music director and concertmaster.  The 18-member string ensemble was making its local debut in a co-presentation by the College of St. Rose and Renaissance Musical Arts.

Shortly after joining the ensemble, Salerno-Sonnenberg reached out to composer William Bolcom for a new work, insisting that he write whatever struck his fancy.  A violin concerto was the composer’s natural response, of course.

Bolcom’s Romanza for Solo Violin and String Orchestra is hardly a traditional concerto, but more of an American pastiche.  It starts atonal and somewhat austere, settles in for a long, slow waltz and ends with a rollicking and rather hilarious cakewalk.

Though there’s only one brief cadenza, which bridges the second and third movements, Salerno-Sonnenberg was the riveting centerpiece from start to finish.  That was not so much for her playing, which was as meaty and no-nonsense as ever, but because of her highly personal leadership style.

She gave a few awkward beats to launch the movements and otherwise the group pretty much carried the music on its own.  But with Salerno-Sonnenberg standing front and center, dressed in black with red heels, you couldn’t help but watch and wonder where in her body the pulse was going to next appear — her chin, shoulders, hips or feet.

For the balance of the night, Salerno-Sonnenberg sat in first chair position and was mostly one of the gang.  Throughout every piece, the ensemble exhibited the sound and appearance of a happy community.  Sometimes, like in the beautiful Mendelssohn Octet that came after intermission, there were lots of grinning faces on stage.

The audience seemed just as happy with the program and playing.  An early Rossini work had cartoonish character, including mouse-like squeaks in the violins and a lumbering bass solo.

Barber’s Adagio for Strings was unusually lean and rewarding, while the Mendelssohn Octet — played by the full complement of 18 strings — had an orchestral breath but still nimble pacing.

Two encores were offered, Bolcom’s charming “Incinerator Rag,” and a Brazilian serenade, arranged by one of Salernon-Sonenberg’s regular collaborators Clarise Assad.