From A to Z: 21st Century Concertos (CD review)

Music by Assad, Bolcom, Daugherty, and Zwilich. Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, New Century Chamber Orchestra. NSS Music.

Founded in 1992, the New Century Chamber Orchestra is a small chamber ensemble dedicated to presenting classical music in a fresh and unique manner. Besides performing classic works from the chamber orchestra repertoire, New Century commissions new pieces, such as those we hear on the disc under review, concertos written expressly for the group's current Music Director and violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg.

The New Century Chamber Orchestra makes its home in the San Francisco Bay Area, and it has been my privilege to hear the group play on a number of occasions. They have never failed to impress me with their musicianship, their impeccable taste, and their immense talent. Each of the twenty-odd members of the ensemble is a virtuoso player in his or her own right, and together they perform as one precision instrument. The accuracy, exactness, meticulousness, and rigor of their playing are remarkable, as exemplified by the four new works on the present album.

First up is a single-movement concerto, Dreamscapes, by Brazilian-born classical and jazz composer, arranger, pianist, and vocalist Clarice Assad (b. 1978). Dreamscapes is well named: It's a series of images from one of the composer's dreams, presented in the style of a dream with numerous shifting and conflicting moods. The NCCO offers up a vivid picture of the dream process, the composer further noting that much of it may be negative. Whatever, it provides some excellent opportunities for the various members of the orchestra, especially Ms. Salerno-Sonnenberg, to shine--to show off their skills, so to speak. It's not necessarily comfortable listening--dreams often aren't--but it is always fascinating and worth the experience.

Next is a three-movement concerto, Romanza, by award-winning American composer and pianist William Bolcom (b. 1938). Bolcom's music sounds a bit more traditional than Assad's, "shamelessly Romantic" as Bolcom puts it. Just don't expect Schubert, Schumann, or Mendelssohn as you know them because Bolcom filters Romantic ideas through a twenty-first century sensibility. The lyricism and passion are there, just not the melodies we might expect of a true Romantic composer. Nevertheless, the piece follows a conventional concerto form of fast-slow-fast movements and leads us through a series of sometimes dance-like, sometimes mysterious passages, concluding with a playful ragtime tune. As always, the NCCO handles it with finesse, refinement, and utter perfection of ensemble playing.

After that we find a four-movement concerto, Fallingwater, by American composer, pianist, and teacher Michael Daugherty (b. 1954). The composer calls Fallingwater a "musical tribute to the visionary American architect Frank Lloyd Wright." The music is more descriptive than the previous selections on the disc and offers up a diverse variety of moods and visual impressions. The NCCO seems entirely attuned to its nuances and supply the rich tapestry of colors the score demands.

The program concludes with the four-movement concerto Commedia Dell-Arte by American composer Ellen Taaffe Zwilich (b. 1939), the first female composer to win the Pulitzer Prize for Music. Here, the music portrays three different characters from Renaissance theater. It's the liveliest and most seemingly spontaneous music on the album and, for me at least, the most entertaining, particularly in its use of percussion. So, the New Century Chamber Orchestra goes out on a bang, so to speak. It's fun stuff from a really skilled group of musicians.

Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg executive produced and David v.R. Bowles produced, engineered, edited, and mastered the recording for Swineshead Productions and NSS Music, the orchestra recording it live in 2012. The sound is very dynamic, with a huge range from softest whispers to extra-large outbursts. The midrange is clear, if a tad hard; the bass is adequate; and the treble well extended. The string tone can be a mite edgy at times but often adds to the atmosphere of the music. Because they recorded live, one is always aware of the audience's presence throughout the program, and the engineers (or the producer or the orchestra) chose to retain the audience applause at the end of each piece. I found that the only unfortunate element of the proceedings, but that's a personal quirk on my part.


To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:

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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa