Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Fresh-sounding Concertos for the New Century

From A to Z: 21st Century Concertos
New Century Chamber Orchestra
Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, violin and director

This new release presents four violin concertos written in the 21st Century from Clarice Assad, William Bolcom, Michael Daugherty, and Ellen Taaffe Zwlich. Two of them -- the Bolcom and the Dougherty -- were commissioned by the ensemble. All benefit from the outstanding musicianship of the group and their talented music director, Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg.

Clarice Assad's "Dreamscapes" is meant to evoke the ethereal half-conscious world of dreams, and does so effectively. This isn't a violin showcase type of concerto. Rather, the solo instrument seems to travel through soundscapes conjured up by the ensemble.

"Romanza," by William Bolcom is more straight-forward work. Bolcom's fascination with American musical forms manifests itself in the finale's cakewalk. "Romanza's" post-romantic construction allows for plenty of expression, and Salenro-Sonneberg rises to the occasion. Her violin practically sings, wresting every bit of emotion out of Bolcom's music.

Michael Daugherty treats the ensemble as a large string quartet in "Fallingwater." The work divides the ensemble into four parts, similar in structure to a string quartet. Daugherty's music often has pop inflections, and "Fallingwater" is no exception. But those influences are understated, providing a freshness and energy to the score without being obvious.

The final work on the album, "Commedia dell"Arte" by Ellen Taaffe Zwlich is in many ways the most traditional (if one can use that term for 21st Century music). As the title suggests, Zwilich uses the characters of commedia dell'arte as her point of inspiration. Each movement presents a musical portrait of one of the stock characters. There's an Italianate light-heartedness about this score, and Salerno-Sonnenberg's bow fairly dances across the strings.

These concertos aren't necessarily about virtuosity; but they are about musicianship. Each one is a partnership between the soloist and the ensemble. Both halves need to be fully committed to deliver successful performances of these works; and there's no question that Nadja Salerno-Sonneberg and the New Century Chamber Orchestra delivers.

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