From A to Z: 21st Century Concertos (CD review)
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:
William (Bill) Heck, Contributing Reviewer
Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms First Symphony. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.
The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to that classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Recently I’ve rebuilt--I prefer to say reinvigorated--my audio system, with a Sangean FM HD tuner and (for the moment) an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a transport, both feeding a NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, which in turn connects to a Legacy Powerbloc2 amplifier driving my trusty Waveform Mach Solo speakers, supplemented by a Hsu Research ULS 15 Mk II subwoofer.