Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Bolcom Meets Strauss in the New Century

The New Century Chamber Orchestra is a conductorless string ensemble formed by Stuart Canin in 1992. Last year they appointed the star violin soloist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg as their concertmaster and music director, and from most accounts it's been a good mesh. (Click here for a wonderful interview with Nadja by Steven Winn at SFGate.)

The first thing I noticed about the group on Saturday evening at Herbst Theatre was how predominantly female the two dozen performers were, which is a rarity in the classical music world. It's usually the other way around. I asked Maura Lafferty (above), the pleasant p.r. lady of the organization, if the ratio of women to men was 3-to-1 or 4-to-1. "Probably the latter," she replied. The ensemble reminded me a bit of The Women's Philharmonic which used to play a lot of interesting, commissioned music from 1981 to 2004, and who played in the same hall.

The evening began with a few short, self-deprecating remarks by Nadja, above, thanking us for being in the hall when there were so many other events in the neighborhood we might be attending, referring I assume to the Berlin Philharmonic at Davies Hall or "Otello" next door at the San Francisco Opera. "So you couldn't get tickets over there, you were dressed up already, and decided to join us here."

She then talked a bit about the program, how it was going to start upbeat with some orchestrated piano rags by American composer William Bolcom, get darker with the same composer's 2005 Serenata Notturna for Oboe and String Quartet, and finally get downright depressing with Richard Strauss' 1944 "Metamorphosen: for 23 solo strings."

In truth, the three rags ("Poltergeist," "Graceful Ghost" and "Incineratorag") were more sinister than what I remember from the Scott Joplin rag fad that overtook the country after the movie "The Sting" was a huge success, and "Metamorphosen" wasn't sad so much as extraordinarily beautiful and exquisitely played by everyone. I had never heard the music before and it instantly became a favorite Strauss piece.

I've been reading about the 71-year-old American composer William Bolcom and his singer wife Joan Morris for decades but never really heard any of his music, which is supposed to be extremely eclectic, from pop parlor songs to symphonies and full-length operas. (Click here for a great recent interview by Georgia Rowe with the composer at SFCV.) His Serenata, with the fine SF Ballet and Opera oboist Laura Griffith as soloist, didn't make me want to rush out and hear more of his music, but it also was perfectly competent and lovely, and I wouldn't mind hearing it again.

The performer who was most fun to watch all night, however, was Candace Guirao (above left) who is the Principal Second Violin. She looked as if she was having a ball the entire evening, and watching her connect up with Nadja and her coperformers with a series of animated looks was a reminder why it can be so much fun to watch live music.


Lisa Hirsch said...

Oh, I love the Bolcom rags! Too bad I couldn't get to this program. His "Songs of Innocence and Experience" is quite a monster of a work. I wore out one of his and Morris's recordings of Victorian parlor songs on LP in the 70s and 80s; they're a great team.

Larry-bob said...

I play Bolcom's "Graceful Ghost" on piano - would have been interesting to hear the arrangement.

How about an arrangement of Bolcom & Morris' "Lime Jello Marshmallow Cottage Cheese Surprise"?