Violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg and the New Century Chamber Orchestra are ahead of the curve with their first fall program. The early-bird celebration of British composer Benjamin Britten's centennial -- he was born Nov. 22, 2013 -- includes two terrific works, "Simple Symphony" and "Les Illuminations," the latter featuring soprano Melody Moore, who has a history of working beautifully with this orchestra.
On Tuesday at the Center for Performing Arts at Menlo-Atherton High School, Moore's performance of "Les Illuminations" was a stunner. Beginning with the opening "Fanfare" to Britten's lavish settings of verse by Arthur Rimbaud, Moore's voice was all power and beauty, like an alabaster missile, her words roundly gleaming and decisively on target. She last sang this piece with New Century in 2007, and I'm going out on a limb here by predicting that her 2012 performances -- which continue around the Bay Area this weekend -- will be highlights of the new classical season.
It was a feast of singing, journeying through the composer's nine movements with their kaleidoscopic array of colors and moods.
With Salerno-Sonnenberg leading from the concertmaster's chair, the string orchestra pounced on "Villes" -- or Towns -- Rimbaud's depiction of city life, its entertainments and horrors, as if it were a pagan dance. Here, Moore delivered her lines with clean velocity, dropping to dark-hued low notes, mezzo stuff. Then in "Antique," which celebrates
At this point, it became exceptionally quiet in the concert hall; the audience knew it was hearing something special.
Other highlights included "Marine" -- or Seascape -- where Moore rode the wavelike rush of verse, evoking the prows of ships with her silvery tones. "Parade" climaxed with her savage declamation of Rimbaud's enigmatic motto, with which the poet seems skepticallyto gaze at the procession of life: "J'ai seul la clef de cette parade sauvage" ("I alone have the key to this savage parade"). With the concluding "Depart," Moore's dark-hued tones of mourning gave way to the strings' final, quiet groans.
Wow, was it ever a crackerjack performance by the orchestra: richly expressive, rhythmically vital, even brutal, and marked by clean attacks and lush blending within sections. And the close listening between orchestra and singer -- and their mutual enjoyment -- was a constant. Since her impressive days as an Adler Fellow at San Francisco Opera, Moore has just grown and grown. There aren't many singers who immerse themselves in a work as generously and successfully as she does.
The program began with "Simple Symphony," which you may recently have heard at the movies; it's part of the soundtrack to film director Wes Anderson's "Moonrise Kingdom." Composed by Britten at age 20 -- and derived from his childhood songs and piano pieces -- it begins with a "Boisterous Bouree," jauntily played by New Century, emphasizing the composer's uniquely bracing and briny harmonies. They felt like a salty sea breeze.
A word about Salerno-Sonnenberg: Her physical involvement with the performance was infectious, inciting the orchestra's verve and lightly tripping rhythmic play -- like children skipping in the yard during "Playful Pizzicato," the second movement. The orchestra sounded like a big guitar.
Most effecting was "Sentimental Saraband," the famous, slow third movement, where the orchestra smartly straddled Britten's moods of mourning and innocence, of melancholy and strength. The "Frolicsome Finale" was taken at a gallop, much of it driven by acting principal cellist Michelle Djokic; she and Salerno-Sonnenberg were the orchestra's power generators throughout the program.
The evening wasn't entirely devoted to Britten (who died in 1976, if you were wondering). It also included Bartok, his Divertimento for String Orchestra, composed in 1939 while Europe waited to go to war. New Century tapped its mixture of angularity and lyricism, its excruciating gravity and weight. The opening Allegro recalled both George Gershwin and Alban Berg, and eventually bore down on its listeners like a shower of stones.
Textured much like the third movement of Bartok's "Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta," the slow second movement began at a bare murmur, which seemed to escape from a subterranean space. The variety of string colors and effects that followed was remarkable: small gasps, threads of despair, cowering laments. Much of it was ever so quiet. You could hear the growing menace: the fear of war, the fear of the future. It felt both time-bound and once again relevant.
NEW CENTURY CHAMBER ORCHESTRA
with soprano Melody Moore
When: Thursday and Saturday, 8 p.m.; Sunday, 5 p.m.
Where: Thursday, First Congregational Church, 2345 Channing Way, Berkeley; Saturday, Herbst Theatre, 401 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco; Sunday, Osher Marin Jewish Community Center, 200 N. San Pedro Road, San Rafael
Tickets: $29-$59; 415-392-4400, www.ncco.org