Kicked off with verve

The New Century Chamber Orchestra

Kicking off their national tour last night in San Francisco, the New Century Chamber Orchestra gave a concert which was a pleasure from the first note to the last. Music Director and concertmaster Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg welcomed the audience and quipped that as the first show of the tour, it may be the worst. If this proves to be true, the audiences for future performances are in for lovely treat.

They began with Hugo Wolf's Italian Serenade (1887)- a jaunty dance featuring a lyrical solo by cellist Susan Babini and some lively interplay between Salerno-Sonnenberg and associate concertmaster Dawn Harms.

Next up was Bartok's Romanian Folk Dances. There are six individual sections to the whole, but one is very brief and the final two are played without pause, so it seems more like four. The first, "Jocul Cu Bata" is based on the Roma folk music that Bartok so brilliantly transformed into an entirely different genre without losing the essence of the music itself. The second dance, "Braul," was a slow, sad lament to my ears though the program notes claim a different intent. By this point I was somewhat lost in the music and not really paying attention to which dance was what and suddenly I was carried away into the sweeping rhythms of the final two, which ended with a lively, exuberant finish.

I would wager most of us in the Northern America are familiar with Astor Piazzolla's music through its use in tango and I hadn't heard the Four Seasons of Buenos Aires before. While the piece has moments that bear the distinct stamp of his slower songs you can dance to, this is a new Piazzolla to me. Fast, lively and dotted with quotes from Vivaldi's namesake work in each movement, this engaging piece was brilliantly performed and the audience loved it. The slow Invierno (Winter) section was especially beautiful. On a side note, this would have made an excellent addition to the program recently performed here by the Venice Baroque Orchestra of Vivaldi's and Phillip Glass' Four Seasons, called the Seasons Project .

After the intermission came Tchaikovsky's Serenade for Strings in C Major, a work full of lyrical romanticism the composer wrote in imitation of Mozart but bearing his own distinct lushness throughout. Salerno-Sonnenberg and Babini again shone throughout the piece, as did principal violist Cassandra Lynne Richburg. The two outer sections are melodic bookends to a delicate waltz and elegy, the latter being the spot where Richburg really made a lovely contribution.

The audience responded with tremendous enthusiasm, earning two encores: Schnittke's Polka and Gershwin's "Bess You is My Woman Now." I thought these may have been more effective had their order been switched, thus sending the audience out into the rain with a dance in their step instead of a ballad on the brain, but that's just me. Everyone I spoke with afterward agreed the concert was terrific and every piece on the program worked well. Based on the first night, it looks like NCCO has a tremendously successful seven-date tour coming up. The Orchestra is performing in Cleveland, Chicago, Ann Arbor, Los Angeles, San Diego, and Davis. You can find the dates and locations here.

Afterwards, GG and I went to Absinthe for drinks, while Axel and his companions went off to what was hopefully presumed to be a less-crowded Sauce. As I was telling Axel about my latest bad experience with a bartender, this time at Sauce a couple of weeks ago (which you'll learn of once I am completely caught up here), he wondered aloud why I had such bad luck with bartenders. I can't say, other than I am particular about certain things and think it fair to expect that if I'm willing to pay $10 for a drink the bartender should a) know how to make it; b) serve it in a timely manner; c) remember that I asked for a twist and not a cherry and finally d), not get indignant when I return the incorrectly-made drink. Is that asking for too much in San Francisco? Apparently it is in some establishments. That's not the case however, at Absinthe, where the service is always excellent, the staff efficient and the drinks are always well-made. They also have interesting and tasty snacks at the bar until 1:00, so I like the joint- a lot.

The best part however, was the company and conversation. GG, you've been missed.