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Crackling wit: Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg.

Lively Arrangement

By B.A. Nilsson

 

Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, Sérgio and Odair Assad

Troy Savings Bank Music Hall, Feb. 8

 

Violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnen-berg performed Bach’s Sonata in E Major for Violin and Harpsichord with two guitars replacing the keyboard, the only non- contemporary piece on the program she and guitarists Sérgio and Odair Assad presented last Thursday at the Troy Music Hall.

She confessed that she prefers this arrangement of the piece, one of several arrangements on the program made by Sérgio. One doesn’t like to question Bach’s wisdom, but he was, after all, himself a master of multiple arrangements. And the sonority of the two guitars—resonant classical instruments with a little bit of amplification—sounds richer and more haunting than harpsichord. And I say this as a harpsichord fanatic.

Not much repertory exists for this combination of instruments, so it was an arrangement-heavy program, and certainly the richer for it. The best arrangements not only capture the essence of the original work but also add original thoughts, which can be done without altering the tunes. Texture and sonority are vital components, and what’s offered by the combo of violin, with its versatile soprano voice, and the percussive ring of guitar is a sound that’s at once intimate, full-bodied and compelling. It resonates, I think, with something deep in our collective DNA that harkens back to the fireside camps of our antediluvian ancestors.

Which made the opening medley of Gypsy songs, written by Sérgio, all the more appropriate. This suite of seven numbers is a reworking of Hungarian melodies in a Bartókian vein (and bookended, at the concert’s end, by Bartók).

“The Pretty Girl,” which started the suite, sports a lively violin lead that introduced Salerno-Sonnenberg’s pleasant, gutsy tone. It’s a sound I know well from her recordings, which include both repertory pieces and pop-song fare. She’s a protean player who, in this guitar-centric context, got some Grappelli into her fingers.

“As Many Inns as I Can Find” is a great song title; it’s a wistful, melancholy piece that gave Sérgio the lead voice, a voice just a bit brighter than that of his robustly hued brother. In “Difficult for You,” Odair took the spotlight as he maneuvered through sinewy interactions with muted violin.

At any given time in most of the pieces, one guitar was figuring rhythm as the other played lead; they made a robust back-and-forth of it in Piazzolla’s “Milonga pe tre,” one of three works on the program by that composer arranged by Sérgio for the trio. Behind the arresting tango rhythms are tune-and-harmony characteristics unique to the Argentinean, but informed with the folk characteristics of his native land.

Folk characteristics were a through line of the program, with more of the Argentine sound in dances by Ginastera—in his case, a three-dance suite bracketed by fast, highly rhythmic tunes that finished with intoxicating high-register fiddling from Salerno- Sonnenberg over wicked catch-me-if-you-can guitar virtuosity. Originally written for piano, the dances emigrated nicely to this string ensemble.

Even the unusual suite of tunes by Charlie Chaplin, again arranged by Sérgio, have a folkish thread. Drawing from Chaplin’s scores for his movies Modern Times and City Lights, the set includes his most famous song, “Smile,” and a nonsense number from Modern Times that, following a folk process all its own, actually is a World War I-vintage song titled “Je cherche aprčs Titine,” later reworked by Jacques Brel.

The Assads are a relentlessly musical family, as evidenced by a work written by Sérgio’s daughter, Clarice, based on her own vocal improvisations and titled Three Sketches. From the hurried chromaticism in “Ad Lib,” the first sketch, to the boppish flavor of the closing piece, “Electrified!,” it was an impressively accomplished work showing a unique compositional voice.

A product of Bartók’s folksong collecting around 1910, six “Roumanian Folk Dances” are well known in a violin-and-piano version, a version Salerno-Sonnenberg confessed to be weary of. Sérgio’s arrangement not only puts those two guitars into fantastic play, but also enhances the fiddle part with more technical challenges, easily realized by the violinist.

Salerno-Sonnenberg introduced each piece with commentary crackling with fiery wit, but so friendly that by the end of it we might as well have been sitting in a living room with the trio. And that’s what chamber music is all about.

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