Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg brings new glitter to New Century Chamber Orchestra

Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg
The Mercury News

Sometimes a little branding is all you need. The San Francisco Symphony has its MTT: Michael Tilson Thomas. The New Century Chamber Orchestra now has its NSS: Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, the sizzling violinist with the famous, international career, who has just landed in the Bay Area as New Century's new music director.

If Thursday night's inaugural concert in Berkeley by Salerno-Sonnenberg and the chamber orchestra is any indication, it won't be long before "Nadja" bumper stickers (handed out at Thursday's concert) are everywhere. Salerno-Sonnenberg has put together a sumptuous, all-Latin program (Ginastera, Piazzolla, Villa-Lobos) to launch her tenure; it repeats Saturday in San Francisco and Tuesday in Palo Alto.

Not that New Century, entering its 17th season, wasn't already on the map. It's a fine string orchestra with a longstanding reputation; that's why it was able to sign its new leader to a contract.

Still, hiring Salerno-Sonnenberg is a marketing coup: How many millions have seen her on "The Tonight Show" or "Dharma and Greg"? Even better, it's a move ripe with musical potential.

Thursday, there was huge excitement at Berkeley's First Congregational Church: The orchestra was being drawn, visibly, into Salerno-Sonnenberg's special world of performance, which matches hot-bloodedness with machine-shop precision.

New Century is a conductor-less orchestra. As music director, Salerno-Sonnenberg sits at the head of the violin section and leads by example. The phrasing of passages is communicated by her posture and gestures. She wields her bow as a velvet hammer; she feels rhythm.

Unlike most classical players, she taps her heels to the beat. She moves, dances. And after leading the first violins through a fast-flying passage in composer Clarice Assad's "Impressions: Suite for Chamber Orchestra," she offered a backward high-five to the violinist seated behind her.

Assad, from Brazil, is composer-in-residence with the chamber orchestra this season. "Impressions," given its world premiere Thursday, is lushly film-score-ish, with echoes of black spirituals, dances from Brazilian salons of yore - and Vivaldi's sunshine.

Turning to Ginastera's "Glosses on Themes of Pablo Casals," the orchestra showed off razor control of ecstatic textures and Stravinsky war rhythms. For Piazzolla's "The Four Seasons of Buenos Aries," a tropical response to Vivaldi, Salerno-Sonnenberg stood up as soloist. Her cadenza was strong, singing - sensational, with every flicked harmonic exactly in its place. But this was a team effort: Cellist Michelle Djokic's cameo was equally fine.

The orchestra ended with Villa-Lobos' "Aria," arranged by Assad with throbbing pizzicato flourishes. When it was over, the room was plunged into silence.