New Century Chamber Orchestra is turning 25 this year, and to mark this milestone they have christened this their Silver Season. The other major milestone they are marking is the ninth and final year of Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg's time as their Music Director, a term that has been marked by a higher profile for this fine ensemble as well as the very welcome Featured Composer Residency program, culminating each season in a new work written for the ensemble (on 16 May 2017 you can hear these works in the first of three final and farewell concerts).
Last Saturday I headed out to Herbst Theater in San Francisco to hear the first concert of their season. It opened with Langsamer Satz (Slow Movement), written by a youthful Webern for his teacher, Arnold Schoenberg (in a version for chamber orchestra prepared by Gerard Schwarz). It is a brief (roughly ten minute) but full and even lush piece, written when both composers were immersed in that late romantic style that is so replete in every way (size, sound, luxurious longing, impending sadness and exhaustion) that the only place to turn from it was to the bracing asperities that I at least love in the works of the Second Viennese School these composers are now mostly associated with. I hope it's not damning to call this piece tasteful, but there's always a sense of elegant restraint behind even its most voluptuous swellings. This was followed by Mozart's Piano Concerto No 13 in C Major, with soloist Inon Barnatan. He is sort of an elfin fellow, and the silver of the season also seemed appropriate for his silvery, mercurial touch; C major is seen as such a triumphant key, but that didn't seem quite what was going on in this delicate yet striking performance. The piano was situated so that Barnatan on his stool was just a few feet away from Salerno-Sonnenberg in her Concertmaster's seat. He frequently glanced over at her, and the two exchanged cues wordlessly. But when he was not looking at her, he did not look at us; instead, a smile of blissful distance on his face, he seemed to be floating off on effulgent clouds he himself was calling forth.
After the intermission, we had Philip Glass's Symphony No. 3. I am a long-time Glass fan, but I was a little mixed on this symphony, though the playing was, as is to be expected with this group, full and fine and thoughtful. The symphony is in the usual four movements, and though I found them all enjoyable enough it was only the third and longest movement that I really connected with. It is also the most "Philip-Glass-like" of the movements, which left me feeling dubious about myself, since I've always rejected "that performance didn't sound like [insert name of composer here: Beethoven, Prokofiev, Glass. . . ]" as a standard – why should people always "sound like" themselves? It's like those painters who have one technique and use it over and over, until it can seem more like a commercial gimmick than anything else. Nonetheless, here I was, most absorbed in the most Glass-like part of the work, feeling in it that undertow of melancholy I hear in his work, with the deep strings lamenting forward, overlaid with the plangent thrusts of Salerno-Sonnenberg's violin. The other movements seemed a bit more haphazard to me, a little less specific in what they summoned up, if you will.
The concert closed with Peter Heidrich's Variations on Happy Birthday, in which the familiar tune is treated in the styles of various composers and traditions, from Bach and Haydn to "film music" and jazz. It's a fun item, so I can see why they thought it would be, you know, fun to include it in the first concert of their 25th birthday season, but it seemed like a bit of a goof after the sort of pearly sadness that underlay the other pieces, though of course the playing was still on a high level. Salerno-Sonnenberg announced that they weren't playing all the variations and we could enjoy ourselves guessing which piece was supposed to be which composer, but I genuinely hate guessing games, which kind of blunted the edge of that for me. And I wonder how many of us would be able to detect a Max Reger parody (Variation IX) unless it was clearly labeled as such, though in general it's easy enough to hear roughly who or what is being parodied. Despite this there was much whispering around me from the previously attentive audience as they tried to pin each butterfly to the board. The young woman next to me asked several times to borrow my program. (Why not just listen? But I do realize it took me a long time to learn that,) Violinist Evan Price, whose birthday it was, did an elaborate solo. Someone behind me decided to chant his name. Some people tried clapping along during the "Hungarian" variation. None of these audience interventions really took off, though. It was not my favorite ending to an otherwise dreamy concert.