Last night in Herbst Theatre, the New Century Chamber Orchestra (NCCO) presented the first of three concerts for this week conceived to celebrate the ensemble’s 25th anniversary and to honor Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg on the conclusion of her tenure as Music Director. This occasion also marked a personal milestone of sorts, since one of my earliest pieces for Examiner.com reported on the final program presented in Salerno-Sonnenberg’s first season with NCCO, which took place in May of 2009. The title of last night’s program was New Creations, and it provided a retrospective view of eight of the composers that were commissioned to add to the NCCO repertoire through the group’s Featured Composer Program.
Eight years have elapsed since I wrote that first piece, and each season saw the world premiere of a work written under the Featured Composer Program. Accounting for each of those composers could have been an excellent way to survey Salerno-Sonnenberg’s legacy. However, that would have required revisiting each of the eight contributions to the repertoire, in part if not in whole. By all rights, this could have been a memory test for those of us who followed the Program closely over those eight seasons. How many of those eight new works tweaked memories of the premiere performance? How many felt like an encounter with an old friend?
Unfortunately, such a memory test was not to be. Only a few of the commissioned works found their way onto last night’s program, and many of them had little connection to NCCO. The result was thus less a matter of taking stock as to how NCCO had progressed over those eight seasons and more a matter of leafing through a photograph album in which only a few of the images actually pertained to NCCO itself.
Of the works that did reflect on NCCO’s past, the one that made the strongest impression was the one that enjoyed the benefit of sustained reinforcement. Clarice Assad’s Impressions suite had a certain pride of place by virtue of opening Together, the first recording that NCCO released under Salerno-Sonnenberg’s direction. Last night revisited the first movement of that suite, a set of variations given the title “Personas.” Each of the variations explored the “personality” of each of the ensemble’s five sections and was played by only that section, often with one-to-a-part writing. (This meant that the bass “section” was actually a solo; and Assad clearly took that qualification in mind.) Much of the NCCO membership has changed since this suite was first performed, but that quality of distinctively contrasting personalities still registered splendidly in last night’s performance.
The other memorable addition to the NCCO repertoire came from Derek Bermel’s “Murmurations,” given its West Coast premiere in May of 2015. Unfortunately, last night’s performance of the second movement of this piece, “Gliding over Algiers,” had little impact. The title of the entire piece refers to the patterns formed by a large flock of starlings in flight, and each movement situated that flock in a different geographic setting. The second movement marked the middle of a fast-slow-fast architecture; but the prevailing rhetoric seemed to have more to do with thick syrup than with imaginative flight patterns.
Indeed, much of the program labored under excess sentimentality. William Bolcom’s “The Graceful Ghost Rag,” one of three “Ghost Rags” that he wrote for piano, could not sustain rearrangement for strings. The recording of Bolcom playing this rag on his Heliotrope Bouquet album was my first contact with Bolcom’s music, and it was refreshingly delightful. Bolcom seemed to capture the subtle imagination of the great ragtime pianists from a past that significantly predated his birth, and the result was a perfect instance of artfulness in miniature. However, the subtleties of his piano technique were washed away by the thicker sweetness of an ensemble of strings; and any sense of that personality that Assad had been able to mine was all but totally lost. Even more disappointing, Mark O’Conor’s “Song of the Liberty Bell” was a painful reminder of the most insipid qualities of theme music composed for PBS.
The other great disappointment was the decision to interleave the survey of the eight Featured Composers with comments from a panel moderated by NCCO Executive Director Philip Wilder. It was hard to escape the impression that Salerno-Sonnenberg was the only member of the panel with a direct attachment to the composers represented by performance. To be fair panelist Alicia Lawyer has been instrumental in providing means for such new works to circulate among several chamber orchestras across the United States, thus maintaining “life after premiere.” However, both Lawyer and the remaining panelist Kate Sheeran (Dean and Provost of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music) seemed disconcertingly detached from the music being made; and it was up to Salerno-Sonnenberg to set the context for each of the pieces that NCCO performed.
Last night should have left us with better memories of all that NCCO has achieved over the last eight seasons.