Violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg has been a go-her-own-way performer throughout her acclaimed career. To take on the task of music director would seem suspiciously mainstream for her, but fear not. Under her leadership, the San Francisco-based New Century Chamber Orchestra already has recorded non-mainstream but challenging works like Piazzolla’s Four Seasons of Buenos Aires and Richard Strauss’s Metamorphosen, and Saturday evening’s concert at the College of Saint Rose’s Picotte Recital Hall included William Bolcom’s Romanza for violin and orchestra, written for and premiered last year by these players.
Bolcom brings a truly American voice to his compositions. He probably knows every song ever written in the last century, yet he assimilates that and many other elements into a unique, ardent, witty voice. Even seeming trifles like his piano rags are substance-laden, while his Songs of Innocence and of Experience is a devastating cycle.
Romanza is a three-movement work that has little else in common with the typical concerto. Its opening, also marked “Romanza,” is an appropriately free-wheeling meditation on short sequences that eventually emerge as a five-note figure traveling through a succession of contrasting moods, ebbing down to three notes that germinate a rush of lyrical tenderness, led by the violas, against which the soloist resists only briefly.
In a similar spirit, the second movement, “Valse Funèbre,” eases from a contrapuntal start into a lushness that suggests not a valse triste but somebody’s tipsy wake. After a brief, meditative cadenza, the violas and cellos led into “Cakewalk,” a high-spirited movement that gave soloist Salerno-Sonnenberg plenty of fun-to-listen-to work as the orchestra kept the background unexpected and crunchy. It’s reminiscent of part of a little-known violin concerto by Louis Gruenberg, imbued with the sardonic spirit of Ravel’s Tzigane.
A beautiful groundwork for the Bolcom was laid by Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings, a string-quartet movement that has achieved far more popularity in its orchestra version, and with good reason: the steady swelling of texture benefits from the resonance of all those strings, leading to the most powerful general pause in all of music. It’s an audience pleaser, rightly so, and Salerno-Sonnenberg, leading from the first desk, thankfully held off the applause for a good while. They know we love them; let’s shut up for a while. (Especially during the concert, if that’s not a lost cause.)
There’s probably no more frivolous opener than Rossini’s String Sonata No. 1, a relentlessly cheerful work that features a jokey opening lick charmingly milked by the players, and moments in which superb bassist Kristin Zoernig was hung out to dry. (It didn’t hurt that Nadja started things off with a deadpan viola joke.)
You can’t pull off a piece like this without excellent playing and an intuitive sense of what the next player is up to. In the brisk third movement, these qualities were well displayed.
Which meant that the concert closer, Mendelssohn’s Octet in E-flat, Op. 20, would be in good hands. It’s a bear of a piece. It’s scored for two string quartets, but it’s written with eight individual voices. The ensemble put Salerno-Sonnenberg and two other fiddlers on the first violin part (meant for a soloist-caliber player), two apiece on the second through fourth, two again on each viola part and the first cello, and added the bass to the two cellists playing the second part. (There will be a test on this in the morning.)
This runs the risk of muddying the sound of what’s already a thick-textured work, and thus needs the utmost clarity of performance. But you already know that the ensemble did so brilliantly.
With her conducting arm busy with the violin, Salerno-Sonnenberg conducted with the rest of her body, encouraging the players to discover new energy within places they already knew quite well. By the height of the tumult of the busy final movement, where a frenzied theme and a bombastic theme unexpectedly make friends towards the middle and head even further over the top, no emotional barriers remained between audience and orchestra.
The first encore, Bolcom’s Incinerator Rag, was a fanciful contrast to his earlier work, furthering the Mendelssohn’s high spirits. The second, Chico Buarque’s “Todo sentimento,” again displayed Salerno-Sonnenberg as soloist with the group in a brief but utterly endearing song.