Schtick and Sweetness Serenade NCCO Crowd

Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg
San Francisco Classical Voice

By Jeff Dunn

Wooing the object of one’s desires is the object of a serenade, whether the object be a lover or an audience. The old-fashioned way to do it was to draw attention to yourself by singing sweetly with your guitar below a balcony, or bring along a discreet group of musicians with you. In today’s electronic age, however, more flamboyance is called for.

Friday night in Berkeley’s First Congregational Church, Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg and her New Century Chamber Orchestra excelled at audience-wooing, thanks to their superb skills and those of two composers, one for each fashion, new and old.

Michael Daugherty, NCCO’s Featured Composer for 2013-2014, was there in person and the flamboyant fashion, going over the top to entertain and amuse. Salerno-Sonnenberg introduced him as “unbelievably talented.” Daugherty himself did not shrink from exaggeration either, claiming at 6-feet five-inches, “I am the tallest composer in the world.” He stood or sat on side-stage much of time introducing and watching his five pieces, and even interrupted the program to demonstrate what he would play at a piano bar if each of the following musicians walked into the room: Milton Babbitt, Philip Glass, John Cage, and Van Cliburn. (He’d imitate the composers’ styles for the first two, walk away for 4 minutes and 33 seconds for the third, play romantic arpeggios for the fourth and get a $50 tip “to keep the noise down.”) Daugherty’s compositions were ingratiating, but even more so was his mixing (tall) in the lobby at intermission with attendees, answering questions and regaling them with stories from his career

Viva (2012) began the Daugherty half of the concert, a 3-minute, virtuoso violin solo stomp powerfully set forth by Salerno-Sonnenberg, full of variety and catchy riffs. Next came Viola Zombie (1991), performed by two undead NCCO violists, Anna Kruger and Jenny Douglass. This was a brilliant exercise in antiphony, with all kinds of extended techniques alternating between the players along with quotations of Marius Constant’s weirdness theme exploited by The Twilight Zone. Kruger and Douglass were fabulous musicians, but need practice with their entrance zombie walks, which didn’t convey enough hunger.

Regrets Only (2006) for piano trio and Elvis Everywhere (1993) for string quartet and recorded voices flirted the most with the boundaries of good taste. The first, written with the goal of adding a “sad work” to Daugherty’s oeuvre and laudably writing “a good tune,” succeeded in both but lurched disappointingly into bathos and café-music parody. The voices in the second were from tapes of Elvis impersonators, the female member of which sounded completely out of place. Thank goodness the text was included in the program. Most of the words, found objects such as, “… the world’s a stage and each of us plays a part / The stage is bare and I’m standing there with the emptiness all around / Hyah!” could not be distinguished in the hall’s acoustic. The gimmicky music to accompany them did not impress me, but received a strong response from the crowd.

The most exciting and straightforward Daugherty number concluded the first half. The 5 ½ minute Strut (1989) for string orchestra is best described by the composer himself:

Imagining a youthful and optimistic Paul Robeson strutting down 125th Street in Harlem during the 1920s, I have created various rhythmic motives, themes and vibrant syncopations that are woven into a lively and complex rhythmic tapestry.

I am looking forward to Daugherty strutting his best stuff later in November, when Salerno-Sonnenberg premieres his Violin Concerto.

The tongue was out of cheek and the heart was more on sleeve after intermission, when the NCCO executed a gorgeous rendition of a traditional late-19th-century serenade by the Czech composer Josef Suk (1874-1936). Written when he was only 18, the serenade abounds in melody, relaxed cheer, and bursts of passion. Moreover, it provides a surprise in form by shifting the depth of the piece, normally expected in opening movements, to the last two of the four. The first movement, with two fine contrasting themes, eschews a development section. The last, in contrast, includes one, plus a hymnodical section of slow, deep, unusual chords. The third-movement Adagio luxuriates a lovely cello melody and then introduces an equally attractive second theme with greater harmonic variety. All movements were flawlessly executed and lovingly sculpted by the music director, who, along with her team, deservedly received a standing ovation.

You don’t have to be a zombie to draw the attention of onlookers after you die, just write immortal music.