Classical Music Review: The NCCO at The Worcester Music Festival

The New Century Chamber Orchestra’s ability to vividly bring to life music of delicate character was on full display in this concert, part of the 152nd Worcester Music Festival.

Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg and the New Century Chamber Orchestra. At Mechanics Hall, Worcester, MA, November 9, 2011.

By Jonathan Blumhofer

Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg — her enthusiasm is contagious. Photo: Grant Leighton

In Worcester on Wednesday, Music Worcester presented the violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg and her excellent San Francisco-based New Century Chamber Orchestra (NCCO) at Mechanics Hall as part of the 152nd Worcester Music Festival. The result was an engaging and, on the whole, highly satisfying evening of music making that ranged back and forth over two centuries of repertoire.

Ms. Salerno-Sonnenberg, who is the orchestra’s concertmaster, music director, and occasional soloist, provided brief introductory comments in which she expounded on her excitement over the concert’s varied program of works by Rossini, Barber, Bolcom, and Mendelssohn. Varied is “how I like to do things,” she said. To judge from the involved playing of her colleagues on the stage, her enthusiasm is contagious.

The first work on the program was a novelty: the String Sonata no. 1 of Gioacchino Rossini, written when the composer was a precociously talented 12-year-old. It is sometimes easy to forget that Rossini was born less than three months after Mozart’s death, and that he was a contemporary of Schubert, Schumann, Berlioz, and Mendelssohn, among others. This Sonata, though, places him squarely in the style of the late Classical tradition; think of it as the kind of serenade Mozart might have written had he lived another decade.

The piece falls into three movements. The first is cast in a traditional sonata form and opens with a hesitating violin figure that calls to mind Dvorak’s later Humoresque. This opening material is followed by a long-breathed melody of the kind that would soon become a Rossini trademark. The second movement also betrays Rossini’s affinity for the voice: it is strongly lyrical but filled with surprising chromatic twists. The finale, a frolicking Allegro, rounds out the piece in high energy and good humor.

On Wednesday night, the conductorless NCCO gave a characterful reading of the Sonata: the first movement’s opening theme tripped gracefully, while the second was filled with lyrical pathos. I was impressed throughout the performance with the clean textures and vivid dynamic contrasts the group coaxed from the score. The second movement, in particular, featured some extremely delicate pianissimo playing that created a remarkable effect, while the jovial finale was dispatched with great élan, showcasing the virtuosity of the NCCO’s individual players.

The Orchestra followed the youthful exuberance of Rossini’s score with Samuel Barber’s famous Adagio for Strings. Barber originally wrote the Adagio as the slow movement for his String Quartet (op. 11), though he later extracted the movement and expanded its orchestration for string orchestra. This performance was notable for its relatively quick tempo, as well as the NCCO’s strong sense of the work’s overarching shape and emotional content. While I missed the sheer amount of sound a larger body of strings produces in this piece, the ensemble’s tonal quality was full and rich.

The New Century Chamber Orchestra

The final piece on the first half of the program was William Bolcom’s Romanza, a violin concerto written specially for Ms. Salerno-Sonnenberg and the NCCO in 2009. Mr. Bolcom is one of the most prolific composers on the scene today, and this is his third violin concerto (the previous two having appeared in 1964 and 1983, respectively). In an interview in the program booklet, he articulated his present dissatisfaction with the typical concerto format, describing the relationship between soloist and orchestra in Romanza as more “actor in a play than technically brilliant hero vs. enormous orchestral forces.”

Still, this is a piece that demands a significant amount of technical brilliance from its soloist, and Ms. Salerno-Sonnenberg more than obliged. Since winning the Walter W. Naumburg International Violin Competition in 1981, Ms. Salerno-Sonnenberg has made a name for herself as a virtuoso who presents bold, sometimes controversial, interpretations of solo violin and chamber music repertoire. Her assured and sensitive performance of the Romanza’s solo part on Wednesday demonstrated that, after thirty years, her technique is as formidable as ever, and that she has developed into one of the most probing and intelligent musicians in the field today.

Like the Rossini, the Bolcom falls into three movements: Romanza, Valse Funèbre, and Cakewalk, with the last two movements connected by a solo violin cadenza. The opening Romanza begins with a slow introduction into which the solo violin enters almost immediately; a fast section ensues, featuring transparent orchestral writing that seems to be viewing Mendelssohn’s incidental music to A Midsummer Night’s Dream through 21st-century lenses.

The curiously titled second movement commences with a hazy orchestral introduction, about and through which the soloist presents a lyrical melody. Throughout the movement, the solo part climbs higher through the register of the violin, until breaking off for a brief cadenza that leads into the finale. The Cakewalk that ends the piece is cleverly constructed, if surprisingly brief, and features some very intense playing high on the solo violin’s G-string.

Mr. Bolcom’s musical language is marked by a stylistic inclusivism that has won him his share of fans as well as critics. At its best (as in the epic Songs of Innocence and of Experience and Eighth Symphony), his eclecticism aids in creating music of great drama and theatricality, while at its worst, the result is music of ambiguous or indecisive character. Involved as Ms. Salerno-Sonnenberg’s performance was, I couldn’t help but feel that this is one of Mr. Bolcom’s lesser scores. Though his orchestral writing in the piece is quite inventive (the string glissandos and percussive effects in the first movement are striking), and the solo part a fine vehicle for Ms. Salerno-Sonnenberg’s formidable technique, too much of the music did not register a distinct impression—for good or ill; though it was well played, the sum of Romanza’s many parts did not add up to a particularly remarkable whole.

In the one provocative bit of programming of the evening, Ms. Salerno-Sonnenberg and the other 18 players of the NCCO returned after intermission for a performance of the Mendelssohn Octet for strings. At the end of her introductory comments at the beginning of the concert, Ms. Salerno-Sonnenberg defended the ensemble’s decision to expand Mendelssohn’s score for eight players to an ensemble of 19 with audacious logic: because we can, she said. I wanted to add, “But that doesn’t necessarily mean that you should.”

That isn’t to say that this wasn’t a well-played performance of Mendelssohn’s extraordinary score. There were moments, particularly in the middle movements, where the decision to double (and, in the case of the first violins, triple) the number of players on a part paid dividends. The rolling phrases of the slow second movement were given bracing and dramatic shape thanks to the addition of two violas, two cellos, and a contrabass. And the mercurial third movement that foreshadows the nimble Scherzo in A Midsummer Night’s Dream was as lightly played and cleanly textured as one could want. Indeed, the group’s ability to vividly bring to life music of delicate character was here on full display.

Composer William Bolcom — Romanza is one of his lesser scores.

What I missed, though—and this was especially evident in the first movement—was the crispness and electricity one finds in performances of this piece when it is played by just eight musicians. As Ms. Salerno-Sonnenberg and her colleagues in the NCCO well know, this is a score that demands a high level of technical dexterity on all eight parts, and it is scored in such a way that textures are always transparent. Thus, any disunity—even among eight players—stands out dramatically; how much more might that be the case with 19 players?

This concern seemed to be much on the minds of the orchestra in the first movement, particularly, where everything felt cautious. The expansive first theme, instead of being of bold character and extroverted, was reserved and tentative. Though as the movement progressed and the ensemble’s confidence seemed to build, textures were never quite as clear as they should have been; in high, fast passages, especially, there was a continual feeling of players holding themselves back.

Despite this, phrases were generally shaped with sensitivity and dynamic shadings were nicely nuanced. By the time the final movement fugue rolled around, the orchestra had hit its stride and was playing with an invigorating (but controlled) abandon. In a nice touch during the ovation that followed, each stand of players took individual bows.

Two encores followed: William Bolcom’s Incineratorag and Sergio Assad’s arrangement of Chico Buarque de Hollanda’s Todo sentimento. The Bolcom—which is an example of the composer at his lighthearted best—was tossed off with brio, while the de Hollanda/Assad arrangement was sensitively played, closing out a memorable evening on an appropriately reflective note.

Jonathan Blumhofer is a composer and violist who has been active in the greater Boston area since 2004. His music has received numerous awards and been performed by various ensembles, including the American Composers Orchestra, Kiev Philharmonic, Camerata Chicago, Xanthos Ensemble, and Juventas New Music Group. Since receiving his doctorate from Boston University in 2010, Jon has taught at Clark University, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, and online for the University of Phoenix, in addition to writing music criticism for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.

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