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Standout show with Anne-Marie McDermott and New Century Chamber Orchestra

Anne-Marie McDermott, Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg
San Jose Mercury News

By Richard Scheinin

Like sweet rain: Such was Mozart, as performed Wednesday by the New Century Chamber Orchestra and pianist Anne-Marie McDermott. The music was a deceptively simple pleasure, in other words: the quiet intimacy, the play of shadow and light, the gladness, the sense of wistfulness and loss.

The performance of Mozart's A-major piano concerto (No. 12) at the Herbst Theatre was the first of four by New Century around the Bay Area this weekend. If the stars line up, maybe this superb ensemble will attract full houses to the other venues. There were too many empty seats at the Herbst; hard to understand. Led by violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, New Century is one of the region's class acts, fresh-sounding and consistently exciting.

My advice: Get to know them.

Composed by Mozart when he was in his mid-20s and new to Vienna, the A-major concerto owes much to the "galant" style of one of his mentors, Johann Christian Bach, the youngest son of J.S. Bach. It's sparely scored, non-busy -- direct and yet mysterious. Baked from essential ingredients, some of its most memorable phrases and melodies consist of just a handful of notes and a trill or two from the piano.

An exquisite player, McDermott established the tone and mood of the opening Allegro: firm touch, clear lines -- tailored to the shadowy, up-down dynamic flow of the string orchestra. Her sense of contour advanced through the Andante, where Mozart introduces a hymn-like melody, quoting from an operatic overture by Johann Christian Bach. (He had died in 1782, shortly before Mozart composed the concerto.) There are some minor-key twists here, dashes of mourning, before the boiled-down Allegretto with which the concerto ends.

This final movement was elegant and, above all, deftly balanced; for both soloist and orchestra, it just had a Mozartean rightness about it. The performance demonstrated one of New Century's key traits, its ability to find the proper expressive mode for whatever piece it happens to be playing. In this intimate program -- never were there more than 16 musicians on stage -- it found three very different, but equally passionate, modes of expression.

The evening began with "Last Round" by Argentinian-born composer Osvaldo Golijov and named after a short story about boxing by Julio Cortázar. Performed by nine players here -- a double string quartet plus double bass -- it is a tribute to (and transformation of) the nuevo tango of Ástor Piazzolla.

Composed in 1996, its first movement is a dialogue (or battle, or boxing match) between opposing phrases and textures -- tightly compressed, driving in and out of one another like pistons. Melodies ascend. Tempos accelerate. And it all pops like a balloon, dissolving into the second movement, which re-imagines Piazzolla's "Muertes del Angel" ("Deaths of the Angel"), one of his heart-ripping ballads.

Golijov stretches it through a hyper-Romantic landscape -- something like the expressionism of early Schoenberg. Led by Salerno-Sonnenberg, whose mastery and range of vibrato is awesome (and whose singing outbursts sounded improvisational), this performance throbbed with exceedingly dark passions, a world away from Mozart.

The program ended with McDermott back on stage for Ernest Chausson's Concert for Piano, Violin and String Quartet, composed in 1891 and bearing the mark of César Franck, Chausson's teacher. Here performed with a beefed up string section of 15 players (plus the soloist), the orchestra evoked rushes of Impressionist sunlight throughout this lushly Romantic, hybrid work. Part concerto and part sonata, it has satin-breeze textures and harmonies which point ahead to George Gershwin and even the ruminations of jazz pianist Bill Evans.

McDermott was the spine of the performance, with her crisp and crashing lines. Salerno-Sonnenberg was the heart of it, shaping every phrase to make it sing like an aria. In another life, she must have been an opera star.