Sunday, December 18, 2011

New Century Chamber Orchestra Celebrates the Holidays

The San Francisco chamber orchestra's second concert of the season, heard at Herbst Theatre on Friday evening, was divided into Serious Music in the first half, and Holiday Bon Bons in the second, although the division turned out not to be as extreme as advertised. The evening started off with Prologue and Variations for String Orchestra from 1983 by Ellen Taafe Zwillich, the composer who used to be a mainstay of the old Bay Area Women's Philharmonic. She's the featured composer for the NCCO this year, and this piece sounded like everything I've heard before from her, which is well-made, pleasant in a mild Shostakovich way, and doesn't seem to go anywhere. Maybe a closer listening with the New Century this season will improve acquaintance.

The early Haydn violin concerto in G major with soloist Krista Bennion Feeney above was another story altogether. Feeney was the previous music director of NCCO, from 1999 to 2006, and her playing was lovely but what took the performance to a whole other level was the ensemble playing by the chamber orchestra, now under Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg. This was some of the finest live Haydn playing I have ever heard, with all his humor and richness fully present. With apologies to the "original instruments" ensembles, this is what Haydn's music should sound like.

The same was true of Arcangelo Corelli's "Christmas" Concerto Grosso from 1690 which looked as enjoyable to play as it was to hear. The perfectly clear interplay between the various string sections and individual players was delightful to watch.

Presumably as a nod to New Years Eve in Vienna, the three final pieces were transcriptions of a couple of Brahms Hungarian Dances (Johannes Goes Gypsy!) and the overture to Strauss' Die Fledermaus. This felt almost like putting up Christmas decorations before Thanksgiving which mitigated some of the pleasure.

The signage in the photo above, by the way, was for an event on the second floor, and we were all tempted to check the event out just to determine whether it was a bash for professional baseball fans, extremely tall people, or simply an ambitious holiday event.

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