Lovely Cadiz

Lovely Cadiz
Cadiz - my favorite place so far in the trip to Southern Spain

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Blaga Nadja: Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg & the New Century Chamber Orchestra

It takes a lot to get Dottore Gianni out at night. Given his increasingly poor eyesight and his inclination towards cocktail hours, drives après dark and après drink are ill-advised. Even were he to leave the car in the garage and walk to his destination after dark, evening strolls après the above, particularly attempting to walk the straight and narrow, are not always wise.

However! After a light cocktail hour and a healthy salad last night, shortly after 7 pm out stepped Dottore Gianni into a crisp, cold, clear evening for a short walk to the Peace Center in order to attend a concert offered by a group called The New Century Chamber Orchestra (NCCO). This ensemble was formed in the San Francisco Bay area in 1992 and since 2008 has boasted Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg as its musical director and concertmaster.
Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg
No one stands on a podium, baton in hand, to guide this ensemble. Instead, like the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra and precious few others, the NCCO is a conductor-less group. Instead, as its bio in the program from last night notes: “Musical decisions are made collaboratively by the 19-member string ensemble, resulting in an enhanced level of commitment on the part of the musicians to concerts of remarkable precision, passion and power.” Regarding the addition of Salerno-Sonnenberg, the bio continues in a quote from Gramophone Magazine, has brought “a new sense of vitality and determination as well as an audacious swagger that is an unmistakable fingerprint of its leader.”
The New Century Chamber Orchestra
I knew nothing of the orchestra before reading that it would be part of the Peace Center’s season, and I might well have passed the concert by except that I DID know the name of Nadja! I’m going to pass on typing her full name each time I remark upon her. Don’t worry, readers, you won’t be confused as she is the only Nadja noted in this post. Whatever they were before, with the arrival of Nadja the NCCO would certainly have gained in precision, passion and power, because that pithy and alliterative phrase describes her perfectly, the “audacious swagger” completing the portrait. 

Dottore Gianni had only vague memories of a prodigy who quickly became known as the “bad girl” of classical music because of her distinctly un-classical gyrations and emotive facial expressions while playing, which revealed a more stormily Romantic than rationally Classical temperament. (See August Wilhelm Schlegel’s differentiation between the two forms – he coined the term “Romanticism” – look for the difference in the music of Chopin for example versus that of Mozart, in the paintings of Delacroix compared to David, in the wild-eyed acting style of Edmund Kean as opposed to the teapot-school style of John Philip Kemble, if you’d care to reach back into musical, art and theatre history for meaning.) 
Kean, in a fiery Romantic pose
The Neoclassical Kemble as the mosst
contained Hotspur on record
Given this, and having seen clips of her performances I decided to jump at the chance to see her in person. Tickets went for as little as $10 but the top price, $35, seemed more than worth paying if I could sit fairly close and see her at work. So after my brisk stroll to the Center yesterday I found myself in the very center of row G in the orchestra of an auditorium that seats well over 2,000. Not a bad vantage point.

In order to further understand this unique artist named Nadja I also watched the Academy Award nominated documentary film, Speaking in Strings, which chronicles her meteoric rise to fame at the same time as she struggled deeply with depression. Now, Dottore Gianni is not generally known for depth of research in his blog posts, but he did a bit more than usual before the concert, as the film is handily available on Hulu Plus, and whether you ever seen Nadja in a concert, it is well worth watching. 
It depicts vividly her childhood as an outsider, her careless approach to music lessons which turned into obsessive, lengthy practice sessions, her acceptance to Juilliard, her insistence on auditioning for a major international violin competition against her teacher’s advice, and then winning it, after which she debuted as a soloist with the New York Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall to great acclaim. It continues looking at her career as a soloist and her increasing inability to handle her fame; to a kitchen accident which nearly caused her to lose her little finger on her fingering hand, which would have meant the death of her career; her subsequent suicide attempt (which obviously would have meant the death of HER); and her triumph in the concert hall only weeks after the attempt. Nadja’s is a dramatic life. I don’t think she’s a woman I’d love to have coffee with, but she is an artist that, particularly after last night’s concert, I would always want to hear play.

Given all I’ve just written, one might wonder how an iconoclast such as Nadja fits into a chamber music ensemble, particularly a conductor-less ensemble. Well, I had a good hint from the film, which showed her at Aspen at a reunion with several of her fellow Juilliard students playing in a tiny ensemble. She seemed to get just as much joy, admittedly of a slightly different kind, playing with them as when she stands (and often prances and dances) as a soloist with a world-famous orchestra. She has not stopped showing emotion and unorthodox movements while playing, but she has toned them to fit this fine ensemble, which features a few other players given to emotive performances as well. In fact her active nature, I would think, makes it easier for the ensemble to take cues from her during performances. So the incorporation of Nadja into this particular ensemble seems a unique and beautiful fit. More practically it has also put the NCCO on the map, which is a good thing, as they are fine group of musicians.

Another hallmark of the ensemble is, again according to last night’s notes, “innovative programming.” I’m guessing it might have got even more innovative after Nadja’s arrival on the scene, but however, whenever it began, innovation was evident last night. The first piece was the Sinfonia No. 10 in B minor by Mendelssohn, not particularly innovative, but a perfect introduction to an all string ensemble. I have covered Mendelssohn in an earlier post (Bloggo Orchestrale: Another Visit to the GSO 11 No 2012), 
so I won’t repeat his biography, but instead will focus briefly on the work itself, written early in his career, along with eleven others, when he was between the ripe young ages of twelve and fourteen! It is set in just one movement, marked in the program Adagio - Allegro, in Wikipedia Adagio – Allegro – Piu Presto. Which is correct? Who knows? Who cares really, as long as the music is played well, which this piece was, indubitably. And certainly it did increase in speed (piu presto) and intensity towards the end, driven by a seemingly possessed Nadja. A very exciting beginning to the concert.

So. The audience was introduced to the orchestra by a relatively familiar piece. The next composition was commissioned by and specifically written for Nadja, by a contemporary composer whose name, William Bolcolm, I know, but not his work – until now. Titled the Romanza for solo Violin and Orchestra, you will see without having heard it that it was written by a contemporary composer when you look at the movements:

I.               Romanza
II.             Valse Funebre
III.           Cakewalk

This rather bizarre combination of movements blended rather beautifully. Nadja was the soloist, this time standing at the center of the orchestra, as would a conductor, but facing the audience head on. If you’ve read this blog before you’ll know that I’m not a tremendous fan of contemporary “serious” music (hard to call it classical, right?) but once again as I have been when listening to the Greenville Symphony, I was won over by the playing. In this piece rather than blend into the chamber ensemble Nadja was allowed to shine, and shine she did! The mood shifts from movement to movement made more sense to this amateur in the first two – it’s easy to go from a romance to a funeral waltz – see Romeo and Juliet just for starters – but the leap into the cakewalk was peculiar at best. Enjoyable, however, and the piece ended on an upbeat and quirky note. I’m not going to race out and buy a cd (or mp3 these days) of Bolcom’s music, but the playing of it won me over, at least temporarily.

Born in 1938, longtime professor of composition at Michigan State (1973-2008), Bolcom is according to Wikipedia (and who am I to doubt it?) 
William Bolcolm
a very respected American composer. While perhaps not the prodigy that Mendelssohn or Mozart was, he began his university studies in compostion at the University of Washington at…wait for it…the age of 11! He continued his studies with some very famous composers, including Darius Milhaud and Olivier Messiaen, won the Pulitzer Prize for Music for his 12 New Etudes for Piano in 1988 and in 2006 was awarded the National Medal of Arts. He set William Blake’s famous poems The Songs of Innocence and of Experience to music featuring soloists, chorus and orchestra. It was performed in Stuttgart, London and at several American venues including the Brooklyn Academy of Music and Carnegie Hall, and a recording of the work won three Grammies in 2006. He composed three major operas, McTeague, A View from the Bridge and A Wedding (the last based on Robert Altman’s film), eight symphonies, eleven string quartets, four violin sonatas, several piano “rags” – I could go on, but you can see that he is a serious contemporary composer. Read Wikipedia on him if you’d like to know more, as that’s where most of this is taken from.

What’s most pertinent for this post is Bolcom on Nadja, which says a lot about him as well as about her, so I will quote at length:

I had already done a piece for her in the 1990s. It was the Third Sonata for Violin and Piano, and I think that she and I premiered it in Aspen in 1993. I’ve always liked her playing because it’s so gutsy. The minute you hear her sound on the radio you know it’s her. To have a unique sound is becoming a rarity among players. Many of them nowadays have a cookie-cutter sound, and that’s a lot different from the famous violinists of my youth. You could instantly recognize if the sound was Mischa Ellman’s or Jascha Heifetz or Zino Francescatti. They had different styles.
Nadja has her approach, which is quite bravura with intense lyricism. So I thought that I’d keep her style in mind when I wrote Romanza. Romanzas were a common form of music in the late 18th early 19th centuries…They are usually lyric and not as showy as a violin concerto. The center of Romanzas is usually dramatic and has an emotionally strong undercurrent or even overcurrent.
I love to write for a certain performer. That helps to give my piece a focus, which can, curiously enough, be picked up by someone else who can put his/her angle on the piece. I don’t like to write for generic violinist X, because there’s no focus…
In the commission that Nadja gave me, she didn’t request a special solo piece for her. I just wanted to do it that way. I sort of foisted it on her.

A very complimentary set of comments, and rightly so, regarding Nadja, but his words exemplify a very smart as well as talented musician in Bolcolm himself.

A short piece closed out the first part of the concert, composed by Heitor Villa-Lobos, a musician about whom Dottore Gianni knew nothing but his name until today. (actually he didn’t even get the name right as he thought his first name was Hector, not Heitor.) The good doctor will now share a little knowledge (which must, at least in this blog, go a long way) about him.

Villa-Lobos (1887-1959) was not a Spaniard as I had assumed, but a Brazilian. He lived in times of turmoil and change in Brazil. 
When he was one year old slavery was abolished there, and when he was two, in 1889, the Empire of Brazil was overthrown. He grew up under the “republic,” a dictatorial rather than a democratic republic, that replaced it. During that time he traveled to Europe and planned to return until the Revolution of 1930 resulted in another dictatorship, that of Getulio Vargas. He was forced during the Vargas era to remain in Brazil, and during this time Villa-Lobos became a strong supporter of the nationalist agenda that Vargas pushed, composing music for it. When Vargas fell from power in 1945 Villa-Lobos began again to travel internationally and increased his reputation.

I know so little of the history of Brazil that I needed that paragraph to place the composer in a historical context, and I assume few of my readers could pass a test on Brazilian history and culture. The passage helped a bit for me – I hope it helped as well for thee!

As a musician Villa-Lobos was largely self-taught, and by the time he was ten he had learned the cello, the guitar and the clarinet! In 1889 his father died, and the future composer put his skills to work playing in cinema and theatre orchestras in Rio de Janeiro. Not long after he also played in street bands, explored the interior of the country where he became aware of native melodies and styles, and he became a cellist with a grand opera company in Rio. In his early 20s he married, began conducting, and also composing his unique style of music. This style was influenced to a point by European composition, but more so by the native melodies he had grown to know. He became friends with the composer Darius Milhaud (mentioned earlier in this post) who was with the French legation to Brazil, and while he learned the European style from Milhaud and the Ballets Russes which group visited Brazil in 1917, Villa-Lobos also introduced Milhaud to Brazilian street music. In 1918 it was the composer’s good fortune to meet the great pianist Artur Rubinstein who championed his music and also became a friend for life.

It was pretty clear that Brazilian music would trump European in two early symphonic tone poems, Amazonas and Uirapurú, which drew from native Brazilian legends and the use of "primitive" folk material. So when Rubinstein convinced Villa-Lobos to visit Paris in 1923, the composer decided to “exhibit his exotic sound world rather than to study” European forms. But he became bewitched by Paris, and returned, living there from 1027 to 1930. As noted above there was a revolution in Brazil in 1930. Villa-Lobos was in Brazil conducting when it occurred and could not leave the country, as the new dictator Vargas allowed no money to be taken out of Brazil. He embraced the new regime, writing patriotic and propagandist music, but he also composed some of his most unique works, called Bachianas-Brazileiras, that blended the style of Bach with Villa-Lobos’s own style.

It was one of these, Bachiana-Brazileiras No. 5, that ended the first part of last night’s concert. The piece originally called for solo soprano and eight cellos, but Nadja commissioned Clarice Assad to arrange it for chamber orchestra, and it worked beautifully in that context. If you want to know more about the composer, just check the reliable, in this case at least, Wikipedia, from which I’ve drawn most of the information on Villa-Lobos. Dottore Gianni would like to tell you more, but must move on to second half of the show, which consisted of one piece only.

That piece was written by Richard Strauss, a composer also discussed in an earlier post (see Bloggo Sehr Schnell und Wild, 24 October 2012 for info on the composer). The Metamorphosen for 23 Solo Strings is a unique piece featuring all of the players in the ensemble, scored for ten violins, five violas, five cellos, and three double basses. (Wikipedia)

Nadja chose the piece because it is perfect musically for her own ensemble, and as you see in the above paragraph, gives everyone a chance to shine. She spoke about that aspect of the music, but not the complicated reasons that caused Strauss to compose it.

If you read my earlier blog you may remember that Strauss had a very complicated relationship with Hitler and the Third Reich. 
Richard Strauss, painted by
Max Lieberman
Metamorphosen explores this in the last days of World War II. It is generally thought that Strauss wrote the piece in mourning of Germany’s destruction in the war, and specifically for the bombing of Munich, in which targets included the National Theatre. Strauss plays on themes from the funeral march in Beethoven’s Third Symphony, called the Eroica, and very near the end of the work quotes the march exactly. The Eroica was written to honor Napoleon, dedicated to him, in fact, but as Beethoven grew disillusioned by the havoc that the Emperor was wreaking throughout Europe he rejected Napoleon and re-dedicated the symphony to “the memory of a great man.” As Beethoven had turned away from Napoleon so Strauss turned away from Hitler, who as we know wreaked his own share of havoc throughout the continent. What better way to voice it than to reference and quote a composer who had made a similar error in the past? After all, composers “speak” most clearly through their music.

If anyone is interested in more details, have a look at Wikipedia, which also presents alternate theories as to why Metaphorsen was written, and what “metamorphosis” it represents. I also found interesting notes from a 2006 performance by the National Symphony at the Kennedy Center:

In fact I want to quote from these notes extensively as they describe a complicated piece musically in a rather succinct and clear fashion:

“The work is essentially a grand Adagio with a dramatically contrasting middle section marked Agitato. The lower strings initiate the sequence with a sort of germinal rumination, giving way to two violas for a statement of the theme which is to be subjected to the various metamorphoses—not variations in the conventional sense, but extensions and elaborations in which the resemblance and allusions cited above are brought into focus. When the Adagio temp returns following the Agitato episode, the Beethoven theme, implicit from the outset, is presented boldly and directly. Lest there be any question about his intent, Strauss headed this section of his score “In memoriam.” It is with musings on this motif that the work comes to rest.”

Not that Dottore Gianni could not have been as eloquent, but he’s a lazy fellow and prefers his work done for him. And admittedly he could never have been so concise!

William C. White’s written notes in addition to those he gave at a pre-concert talk on the piece, played by the Chicago Symphony in 2010, might also prove interesting, especially as he inserts audio tracks so that you can hear the themes and the similarity to Beethoven:

The NCCO and the excellent Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg rendered the Metamorphosen beautifully. I found myself closing my eyes at times and becoming transported by the performance, looking up at the ceiling as if to thank whatever powers assisted in the powerful music and the wonderful performance of it.

The group received not only a standing ovation (I’ve noted before that the Greenville audiences seem incapable of not giving such an ovation, but in this case it was deserved), but they also played two encores! The first was the Hungarian Dance No. 5 by Brahms, a VERY familiar melody, offered at high speed and with a great sense of joy. Their second was very “pops” oriented, but perfect for the occasion, as the performers are from the Bay Area. Nadja teasingly told the audience that another audience at an earlier tour stop didn’t know what it was, and asked if they wanted to know the title beforehand or if they thought they could guess it. The audience was emphatic that they could guess, and of course it was easy, as the orchestra broke into a lush and lovely interpretation of “I Left my Heart in San Francisco.”

What an enchanting evening! All I’d hoped for from the star and the ensemble…and then some! A GSO concert is on my agenda for this coming Sunday afternoon, the highlight for me a Sibelius symphony, on which I’ll report early next week. Till then…

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