by Philip Campbell
Getting into the spirit of the season with good music in convivial concert settings has been easy this year. Two recent events gave plenty of cheer, and even managed a sense of celebration without a single Christmas carol or holiday medley on the bill. I actually like a lot of the Yuletide classics, but there is plenty of opportunity to hear them all around us.
The last regular subscription concerts of 2012 by the San Francisco Symphony offered a refreshing break from traditional programming in December, and the New Century Chamber Orchestra also made a clever choice, celebrating all four seasons in a typically lively concert at Herbst Theatre.
Of course, I was hearing Yefim Bronfman playing Beethoven's mighty Piano Concerto No. 5, Emperor, on the first night of Hanukkah, surrounded by the hanging of the green at Davies Hall and all those pretty trees, but it only added to the general feeling of festivity.
Nothing could have been more secular than the first performances of SFS Assistant Concertmaster Mark Volkert's Pandora for orchestral strings, which opened the program. There is a lot of Bernard Herrmann's string-writing for Hitchcock's Psycho in the air, but that is more praise than criticism. Volkert has a very personal grasp (well, yeah) of the expressive range of his instrumentalists, and he also knows how to tell a story in a pleasingly linear and vivid way.
Pandora supposedly started out as a purely abstract work, and the composer is still merely suggesting aspects of the mythical tale, but no listener will ever lose their place during the score's 20 intensely pictorial minutes.
The concert began with Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks by Richard Strauss, and it was a particularly apt introduction to Volkert's new piece. Conductor Michael Tilson Thomas stressed the more grating and annoying deviltry of the titular character, and the moments of humor only come from the astonishingly clever touches of orchestration. Pandora is a dark retelling of a familiar story, and MTT's Till has a rather sinister mean streak, too.
Yefim Bronfman's account of the Emperor Concerto occupied the whole second half of the concert, and it was a suitably commanding reading. Not a note out of place or a moment of reflection was ignored, but Bronfman never attracted from an emotional standpoint. His clear articulation, even in the beautiful central Adagio, was more perfect than passionate. Still, the soloist's easy stage presence and sense of humor (an audience member applauded between movements, so he took a bow) gave some warmth to a chilly interpretation.
A week later and a block up the street from Davies Hall, Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg and the New Century Chamber Orchestra presented a satisfying evening of new and old music for strings, with some notable contributions from harpsichord and vibraphone.
As Music Director of the NCCO, Salerno-Sonnenberg has managed to rein in her own personality and temperament while still urging members of the group to individual excellence and a cohesive and identifiable ensemble sound. She still clearly exhibits authority, but as a wry and genial announcer and first chair, she gives her colleagues plenty of chance to shine. This was happily apparent during the evening's second half, with individual soloists taking turns at bat for different movements during a complete reading of Vivaldi's beloved perennial The Four Seasons. Hrabba Atladottir, Anna Pressler, Dawn Harms, Jennifer Cho, Karen Sor, Candace Girao, Lisa Zurlinden, Robin Mayforth, Iris Stone and Salerno-Sonneberg herself all stood and played their moment in the spotlight with flair and sensitivity. All deserve to be mentioned for their individual excellence and value to the NCCO as a whole.
The first half of the bill opened with some Handel and two contemporary compositions by Lera Auerbach and Clarice Assad. Auerbach's Sogno di Stabat Mater for Solo Violin, Viola, Vibraphone and String Orchestra borrows from Pergolesi for thematic material, but manages to sound both modern and attractive on its own. The vibraphone (an excellent Galen Lemmon soloist) lends moody and jazzy appeal to the score even when it threatens to swamp the other players. Violist Jenny Douglass was expressive, but it took the fierce focus of Salerno-Sonnenberg to lend the piece some gravitas.
Clarice Assad's pleasant Suite for Lower Strings, based on themes of Bach, was also a welcome diversion. It may have amounted to really not much more than a bright and witty arrangement of the familiar tunes, but it certainly added charm to the program. The concluding encore, a sumptuous arrangement of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" by Evan Price, satisfied my holiday sweet tooth, and joyfully displayed how big a sound a relatively small ensemble can yield when they are all in harmony.