Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 3 / 18 January 2018

Farewell to Nadja


New Century Chamber Orchestra bid adieu to Music Director Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg. Photo: Courtesy NCCO
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New Century Chamber Orchestra turned silver last week with a three-concert 25th Anniversary Festival, celebrating an amazing Bay Area legacy of quality performances, adventurous programming and enthusiastic public support. It also marked a bittersweet farewell to Music Director Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, making her final appearances after nine seasons enjoying (in her words) "a marriage that works."

The happy partnership joined the conductorless ensemble in 2008 with Salerno-Sonnenberg's electrifying lead from the concertmaster's chair to create a rich blend of shimmering sound and an instantly recognizable brand name. Salerno-Sonnenberg's established prominence as an internationally acclaimed violinist opened fresh opportunities for recording, touring, and very importantly, the commissioning of new works for string orchestra.

The first concert in the Festival (all three presented in the beautifully restored Herbst Theatre) appropriately focused on writers who have contributed works to the Featured Composer program, inaugurated by the passionate new director soon after her appointment. Each successive season has featured a chosen composer's works, including a commissioned premiere.

Snippets from some of the noteworthy composers were performed with commentary from a panel formed of Salerno-Sonnenberg; NCCO Executive Director Philip Wilder; Alecia Lawyer, Founder & Artistic Director of Houston's River Oaks Chamber Orchestra; and San Francisco Conservatory of Music Dean and Provost Kate Sheeran. It lent a slightly academic air to the evening, but their lively conversation added to the enjoyment of the music, and helped underline the critical need for new repertoire.

Selections from Pulitzer Prize winners Ellen Taaffe Zwilich and William Bolcom took pride of place at the beginning and end of the bill, and longtime collaborator Clarice Assad (contributor of many successful arrangements for NCCO) took the spotlight with "Impressions," a clever showcase for the five sections of the Orchestra and the individual musicians.

Jennifer Higdon is already known to Northern California from her work with the San Francisco Symphony (catch her lovely "Blue Cathedral" on YouTube with Stephane Devane conducting). Strings from "Concerto for Orchestra" and "To the Point" added some lively interest to the program.

Mark O'Connor's "Song of the Liberty Bell" from a PBS documentary and Derek Bermel's easily listenable "Murmurations" (co-commissioned by NCCO, River Oaks Chamber Orchestra, Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra and partner A Far Cry) showed New Century's inclusive appeal to a broad audience.

Michael Daugherty is more in-your-face with his aptly titled "Strut," but Salerno-Sonnenberg noted it is fun to play, and it was definitely fun to hear. Lera Auerbach's String Symphony "Memoria de la Luz" offered a beautifully wispy melody for a violin solo. Nadja's warm, varied and tangy tone is ideal for so much in the ensemble's repertory.

I skipped the final concert in the Festival for another commitment, while regretting missing Clarice Assad's terrific arrangement of Gershwin's "An American in Paris" Suite. Her gorgeous setting sums up everything right about the nine-year marriage. I got another chance to spend a night marveling at the union with the middle concert of the Festival.

"" was split into two simpatico works, Vivaldi's "Four Seasons" and Astor Piazzolla's "Four Seasons of Buenos Aires." Salerno-Sonnenberg has a long association with the former piece, and has recorded the latter with NCCO for NSS Music. With her sometimes quirky and always fervent performance style, Nadja added an astringent vitality to the "Four Seasons," and even better, to Piazzolla's tango-tinged tour de force suite.

When the concert ended, Nadja received a proclamation presented from the Mayor's office, naming May 20, 2017 in her honor. The audience gleefully joined in, shouting out "whereas" when cued at the top of each paragraph. We were feeling a little verklempt, but enormously grateful. The encore "I Left My Heart in San Francisco" said it all – in music, of course.


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