Wednesday, March 7, 2012

"Beauty and the Best" in the Bay Area this case, we're talking about the San Francisco Bay Area, and a concert we liked so much that we actually went back to hear it a second time in the same weekend! The powerfully musical violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg has been doing wonders in her role as Music Director of the vibrant New Century Chamber Orchestra. One might not always agree with all of her programming choices (and indeed, for this past weekend's concerts some audience members definitely would have been happier if the concert had stopped prior to the particularly difficult John Adams piece that filled the second half of the program) but even so, the program themes are always innovatively conceived and dazzlingly performed.

The concerts this month came after a recent US tour where the orchestra has quite justifiably been lauded as "the finest string orchestra in the country"  and the weekend's program provided a musical tribute to Bay Area composers and performers, as part of the orchestra's 20th Anniversary season. All four selections in the first half of the program provided a feast of " listening joy" that is seldom experienced from orchestras at this level of professional caliber. Far from being jaded with their jobs or with playing pieces they have performed countless times, these players approach each entry with unified ensemble, energy, incredible attack (when appropriate) and warmly shaped phrases, while actually smiling (also when appropriate) at each other. And there was fortunately a lot to smile about in these selections.

Gordon Getty's "Four Traditional Pieces" were a great opening to the program, like warm comfort food that one could order again and again. Each of the four pieces has its own special character but the excellent writing still allows for a Schumannesque freedom of interpretation and shaping that made the performance on Thursday night totally different (though no less magical) from the one on Sunday. In both cases, though, the gorgeous color, warmth and ensemble of the orchestra in the very first opening chord held a magic that lingered over the entire rest of the program and after the ride home. It must be wonderful for Mr Getty, who has championed so strongly for having a conductor-less chamber orchestra of this caliber in the Bay Area, to hear his beautiful compositions performed so sensitively (and yes, one could say "perfectly") by that very ensemble he has worked so hard to support.

Another friend of the NCCO, composer Evan Price, premiered a new work on this program called "Emergence" and even his program notes themselves were evocative  - if one had only time to read the first few words, prior to hearing the piece, it would have piqued curiosity: "How do birds flock or fish school?"  And the musical answer was this wonderful new work for the string orchestra repertoire, in three continuous movements called "Awakening", "Flash Mob" and "Nightlife" , exploring the phenomenon of emergence among both nature and humanity, starting out with single instrumental lines that converge into chordal segments  and then gradually dissolve into chaos and disunity by the end. Great concept, and it actually "worked" in performance, scoring a major hit with the audience and the players alike, which is an even rarer phenomenon with so many commissioned works in recent years.

The remainder of the first half combined and contrasted two world-renowned mandolin artists, showcasing very different works for mandolin and orchestra. Bulgarian-born German artist Caterina Lichtenberg performed the three-movement Vivaldi Concerto in C Major with an unbelievable musicality that turned every scale passage into a delectable discovery. The piece is not simple for the violins, in particular, as in one section they were required to "pluck" their notes in rapid parallel with the mandolin - this activity is no doubt "cramp producing" for the hands of the violinists (who were visibly glad to pick up their bows again), but very appreciated by the audience, as both the visual and audio effect of this repeated pizzicato passage was charming. As in all NCCO performances we have heard, the bass player Anthony Manzo shaped every single note and phrase with utmost musicality and rhythmic pulse, inspiring and supporting the other players right up through the cello section and beyond.
Following the Vivaldi performance, the legendary (and Bay Area based) mandolin artist and composer Mike Marshall shared his eclectic and exciting Mandolin Concerto No 1 which was completed in 2006 on a commission from the Plucked Strings Foundation Inc (yes, that is really a foundation - we looked it up). Right from the riveting opening "lunges" in the orchestral introduction, one can't conceive of a more imaginatively written piece to explore the range of possibilities and musical styles open to the mandolin family, and indeed, Marshall wrote the second movement to feature the lesser-known Mandocello which is, he says, "a nearly forgotten instrument made popular during the early 20th century when mandolin orchestras flourished throughout the Americas and Europe". (Well, we have more recently heard mandolin orchestras in places as surprising as Turkmenistan but that is another story......back to this past weekend).
Mike Marshall is a tall person who plays standing up, his knees bent, and his shoulders arched protectively over a relatively tiny instrument that looks almost like a toy in his large hands.....and then his fingers start to improvise impossibly quickly into a bluegrass-style frenzy and the audience erupts. He is a uniquely creative composer, arranger, mandolin virtuoso, and performer who ended his magical piece with a rhythmic  "hoe down" of electrifying proportions that the audience, orchestra and soloist all got to enjoy together in a grand celebration of this often-maligned instrument. And then to the delight of all, he and Caterina Lichtenberg played, as encores, some mandolin duets they had collected or arranged from different cultures, and those can also be heard on their joint CD release, Mike and Caterina (Adventure Music Label, 2010) which is highly recommended for those not fortunate enough to have heard this concert at least once, never mind twice!

[The New Century Chamber Orchestra's page for this concert, with full program, is HERE.]

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