Chamber orchestra plays at a high level; Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg energizes stage

11.11.11
Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg
Telegram & Gazette

By John Zeugner

Are we witnessing the rebirth of classical music or its death spasms?

On the one hand the dynamic growth of small chamber orchestras featuring dedicated younger musicians playing cross-over and contemporary compositions seems like an infusion of energy and life into the moribund concert scene. Think of Boston’s new group “A Far Cry,” New York’s “The Knights,” Amsterdam’s “Sinfonetta” or England’s “Northern Sinfonia.” The list grows daily and doubtless economic historians view their proliferation as the inevitable byproduct of the demise of sclerotic, big orchestras.

But, on the other hand, the paltry audiences such groups draw, and the antics they occasionally display, may suggest that final metabolic surge terminal patients manifest just before expiration. Are we witnessing the brilliance of the new, or only the Lady Gaga-fication of the staggering shards?

So Music Worcester Inc. brought to Mechanics Hall Wednesday night San Francisco’s energetic small ensemble, The New Century Chamber Orchestra, led by legendary violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg in sequined black trousers and dazzlingly chili-pepper red high heels, and 19 or so musicians — 16 women, 3 men sporting red roses or red ties and playing with intense focus and precision, for an enthusiastic but very limited audience of about 350.

Their program celebrated youth and opened with Rossini’s Sonata No. I composed at age 12 and closed with Mendelssohn’s Octet written when he was just 17, both pieces re-orchestrated for a string orchestra. In between, The New Century tackled Samuel Barber’s familiar and always wrenching “Adagio for Strings,” and contemporary composer William Bolcolm’s gnarly “Romanza for solo Violin and String Orchestra,” expressly written for Salerno-Sonnenberg.

In fact Pulitzer Prize winning Bolcolm may well be the dean of living American composers, perhaps best known for his mammoth orchestration of William Blake poems. In various interviews he noted he composed the Romanza hoping to provide Nadja with something worthy of her passion and furious energy. He succeeded, but the first two movements, although always compelling, were not easily accessible. In the third movement Bolcolm took up his latest infusion of very accessible American popular music, the traditional rhythms of a “Cakewalk,” his designation for the movement. And the finale cooked with bouncy polka-like energy as Salerno-Sonnenberg deftly threaded her way through the solo parts while simultaneously guiding the orchestra using head jerks, jowl shakes and body shimmies. An amazing performance.

The New Century was perhaps most at home with Barber’s Adagio, having played it dozens of times and recorded it on Nadja’s own NSS label. The group neatly handled the swelling crescendos, the delicate anguished pauses, infusing the whole effort with the escalating angst Barber flooded over the work. It’s impossible to hear the work apart from remembered funerals for Presidents and 9-11 victims, or the Vietnam butcheries of Oliver Stone’s film, “Platoon.” The effect is always and ever the same — a stunned sadness in any audience, followed by a collective, not-quite-silenced internal sigh.

As an encore for the standing, cheering audience Salerno-Sonnenberg turned again to Bolcolm who recently has absorbed Scott Joplin’s genius, and composed a piece Bolcolm labeled “Incinerator Rag.” That triggered another encore of a Brazilian love song, languid and touching, almost reassuring that in the long term a new classical music performance might outstraddle disappearance.