‘Pure joy’: New Century Chamber Orchestra to perform at Duke

Jan. 24, 2013 @ 04:19 PM

Violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg recently rounded out her fifth year as artistic director of the San Francisco-based New Century Chamber Ensemble, a 19-member string orchestra. Salerno-Sonnenberg, a well established soloist, had no intentions of taking on that role in 2008.
“It was certainly nothing that I planned for myself. Nothing really drew me to it except a telephone conversation” with a friend, Salerno-Sonnenberg said in a phone interview. She told her friend she did not want to take on the role of director, but she agreed to come rehearse and play some concerts with New Century. “I would say within two minutes of the first rehearsal it was clear this was working wonderfully,” Salerno-Sonnenberg said. After the concerts, she and the orchestra realized “that this was a chemistry … that we had to make it work.”
Established in 1992, the ensemble went on its first national tour in 2011. The orchestra currently is on an extensive national tour, which comes to Reynolds Industries Theater at Duke University today.
Salerno-Sonnenberg is alternating tour dates with the chamber group in between solo appearances with several orchestras in the spring. Born in Rome, she emigrated to the United States at age 8 to study at the Curtis Institute of Music, and later studied at The Juilliard School. Her solo career began in 1981 when she won the Walter W. Naumberg International Violin competition. In addition to her solo concerts with various orchestras, she also has an extensive body of recordings.
One of the goals of New Century Chamber Ensemble is to extend the repertoire that classical groups can play. During today’s concert at Duke, the orchestra will play compositions by Mendelssohn, William Bolcom, Heitor Villa-Lobos, and Richard Strauss.
The Strauss piece is “Metamorphosen for 23 Solo Strings,” which Salerno-Sonnenberg called “the absolute height of string orchestra composition.” Rather than having different sections of strings playing the same part, Strauss gives every player a solo part. “Nobody’s following anybody in this piece. It’s extremely challenging … so powerful and so gorgeous. In deciding a program to take on tour, my job is to choose a palette that has great variety,” she said. “This program certainly has great variety.”
“Metamorphosen” is included on a live recording on Salerno-Sonnenberg’s label, NSS Records, which she started in 2005. Also on that label, the orchestra has released “Together.” That recording includes composer Clarice Assad’s “Impressions: Suite for Chamber Orchestra,” which New Century commissioned, along with pieces by Astor Piazzolla, Béla Bartok, and an arrangement of George Gershwin’s “Bess, You Is My Woman.”
The label now has 10 releases, and a new DVD in the works, she said. The tradeoff in having her own label “is the amount of work. Having the artistic freedom is fantastic,” Salerno-Sonnenberg said. “To have the artistic freedom to release something that means something to you is fantastic. The tradeoff is that I have to do it all myself” – from designing the covers to proofreading – “but I have gotten quite good at it,” she said.
This year, New Century will release a new recording with four or five new pieces written specifically for the orchestra, she said. “My feeling is that the sky is the limit as far as repertoire,” she said. “It’s important to play the war horses … but I don’t want to be pegged in any category, because this is an orchestra that can play everything.”
The repertoire for large string orchestras like New Century is limited, but the potential is huge, given the range of sounds strings can produce, she said. “A string instrument can create so many kinds of sounds. A piano, for example, cannot have a vibrato,” Salerno-Sonnenberg said. “When you talk about a string instrument, the capabilities are so vast. … When you have a lot of that on stage, you have the possibility to create so many different, varied sounds.”
While she determines the ensemble’s repertoire, the process of rehearsal, figuring out how to interpret, is “equal and completely democratic,” she said. “When you have an ensemble without a conductor [like New Century], you are talking about musicians who are more heightened. They have to be,” Salerno-Sonnenberg said.
Her record label also has released a DVD, “On Our Way,” about New Century Chamber Ensemble, which Salerno-Sonnenberg said captures the sounds and physical energy of the orchestra (which she said is “almost like an action movie”). “I was hell-bent on releasing a DVD about my orchestra, because this orchestra deserves to be seen and heard. What you see is pure joy. There’s real joy when we play on stage.”


Go and Do
WHAT: New Century Chamber Orchestra, featuring Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, violin
WHERE: Reynolds Industries Theater, Duke University
WHEN: Today, 8 p.m.
ADMISSION: Tickets start at $20. To purchase and for more information, call 919-684-4444 or visit www.dukeperformances.org.