And Schubert’s Morbid Romanticism

The New Century Chamber Orchestra is an elite string ensemble having an unabashedly emotional approach to music. Such is the guiding philosophy of Nadja Salerno-Sonnenburg, its music director as well as lead violinist.

And she never shies away from arrangements that permit borrowing from a broader repertoire.

The keystone of the season finale was the effusive “Death and the Maiden” opus by Schubert as arranged by Gustav Mahler. This is an extraordinary passionate work of depth and dimension, nearly 40 minutes in length representing the height of temperament, a Schubert original created early on when Beethoven was still alive. Mahler achieved a very rich orchestral sound with vibrant chords, based on the string quartet, adding to the orchestral repertory a piece unlike anything in the regular Schubert canon.

The title comes from a Schubert Lied developed with variations in the second movement—an unlikely choice, given the dour main theme that is almost immobile.

It takes you right into the depths of despondency. Fortunately, it’s followed by an ebullient Presto finale that merits dancing in the aisles.

It’s a brave composer indeed who writes programmatic music about birds in Italy, given the precedent of the well-known Respighi “The Birds” (Gli Uccelli) of 1928—–a daunting deterrent.

But Derek Bermel, 47, is fearless. His world-premiere “Murmurations” simulates the synchronized flight patterns of flocks of birds, based on observing starlings in Rome. Like the Respighi, this is thoroughly consonant. You can almost count the birds in the opening “Gathering” segment, with soft trills and perpetual-motion figures in the orchestra. The closing “Swarming” section, equally animated, offers tremolos and minimalist touches, with chordal shifts that may or may not portray changes of direction in the flock’s flight.

In between comes “Swooping,” with a serenity to soothe the savage breast, and comforting barcarolle effects. Overall, the 23-minute opus (heard May 30 at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music) was as smooth as a pair of velvet slippers—-very beautiful, even if not a lot happens in flight.

Both works were done without conductor, Salerno-Sonnenberg sitting in the concertmaster chair. Little wonder that the Bermel piece elicited her burning interest: She too was born in Rome.

The concert opened with Stravinsky’s “Suite Italienne,” absolutely correct geographically. Had the NCCO played an encore, the perfect one would have been Schubert’s Overture in Italian Style. No matter: The 19-member orchestra played exquisitely throughout, even though some of its principal players were absent. This is a formidable ensemble to have play at your birthday, at your wedding, and off on your desert island retreat as well.

MUSIC NOTES—Close to 70% of the NCCO personnel are female….This weekend marks the conclusion of the NCCO’s 23rd season….No end of confusion: The NCCO is unrelated to the New Millennium Chamber Orchestra, a more recent competitor performing mostly in the South Bay, holding forth on some of the same dates but -different locales.

New Century Chamber Orchestra, in four venues, concluding May 31 at the Osher Marin JCC. For info: go online.

©Paul Hertelendy 2015
Paul Hertelendy has been covering the dance and modern-music scene in the San Francisco Bay Area with relish — and a certain amount of salsa — for years.
These critiques appearing weekly (or sometimes semi-weekly, but never weakly) will focus on dance and new musical creativity in performance, with forays into books (by authors of the region), theater and recordings by local artists as well.

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