On Our Way: The Journey of Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg
In a recent review reporting on female orchestra conductors and their increasing presence on the American music scene, Bay Area readers probably noted an interesting omission. Violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, famous and well-established in her own solo career, became music director of the New Century Chamber Orchestra in 2008. She has spent the first four years of the partnership striving to bring them "to a position of recognition." She wants the 19-member string ensemble "to be a household name." If anyone can raise and maintain the energy level of a group that celebrates its 20th anniversary this season, it would be the plucky, immensely talented Salerno-Sonnenberg. Always known for her wit and emotive performances, the once mildly controversial violinist (surprised the classical music world could be a bit conservative?) appears to have bonded and blended beautifully with the conductorless NCCO.
A new DVD has been released this month that chronicles Salerno-Sonnenberg’s partnership with the NCCO. On Our Way includes a pleasing concert of complete works taped in Santa Monica at the Broad Stage as the culmination of the ensemble’s tour in 2011.
The documentary itself is pretty generic stuff, and the endless quotes from NCCO members about the diversity of members and their individual personalities ultimately forging a cohesive whole get boring. Alright, if they say so, but there is little evidence of temperament on display here, and if it weren’t for the wry humor and seasoned attitude of the group’s Music Director and Concertmaster, the documentary would simply be a pleasant introduction to an organization that deserves more attention. Thankfully, the DVD is cued so that we can watch the full concert performances separately. After a first viewing, the documentary part can be skipped. And the concert is worth the price of admission. The NCCO has a big, vibrant sound that belies the numbers. With members taking their cues from one another and especially Salerno-Sonnenberg, the performances are lush and dramatic.
A major highlight is a complete rendition of Astor Piazzolla’s tango-infused The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires, with its cleverly enfolded references to Vivaldi’s immortal score, and moments of electrifying passion shifting to bittersweet reflection. Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings also gets a vibrant reading that is surprisingly fresh-sounding and involving. There is also some Hugo Wolf and encores by Gershwin and Alfred Schnittke. As the amusing music director says at the conclusion, "I bet you were hoping for an encore by Schnittke."
Well, we hadn’t thought of it, but as she happens to bring it up, a Polka by the crazy genius of modern Russian music would actually hit the spot. Watch the video once straight through for the introduction. Keep it in the library for the concert portion, beautifully recorded and sensibly filmed. On Our Way is available through CDbaby.com.
Beethoven: Symphony No. 7 and Overture No. 3 from Leonore; Michael Tilson Thomas, San Francisco Symphony (SFS Media)
Touting the latest Beethoven release in the slowly growing discography of the San Francisco Symphony on its own SFS Media label as an "ongoing exploration" strikes me as a pretty vague excuse for throwing yet another Seventh Symphony into an overstocked inventory already filled with choice. If we opt for this perfectly respectable rendition it will be more out of loyalty than anything else, but we can also say you would be hard-pressed to ever find a better recorded performance.
The dynamic range alone captures every nuance, and MTT’s decision to record "live" is repaid with stunning presence and rich acoustics (actually better than Davies Hall itself). If we can expect a full cycle of Beethoven, these careful and gorgeously played renditions should make a good library choice.
In the meantime, we can muse on the maestro’s early forays into Beethoven (back during his time in London) and how he went about the task with all the cheek and drive of a young man making his mark. He has certainly matured since then, but that hasn’t dimmed his vigor in other repertoire. Does this new "exploration" stuff with Beethoven and the SFS mean he that he is now looking for some middle ground?
I doubt the maestro is slowing down, but if the developing set of Beethoven recordings helps finance the orchestra’s more exciting Ives and Copland releases, then I’m definitely still in. Currently available for download from the iTunes store, with general release on June 12.