The New Century Chamber Orchestra is beginning its 20th anniversary season and I caught their San Francisco concert last night at the Herbst (the ensemble routinely performs each program in four venues around the Bay Area- Berkeley, Palo Alto and San Rafael are the other locations).

By the time I parked my motorcycle behind the opera house I was pretty exhausted from the day's events and the preceding week in general, but I was looking forward to the performance, especially since I had read Josh Kosman's enthusiastic review of Thursday's concert earlier in the day.

The ensemble gave an energized, well-executed performance during the two-hour concert, no doubt influenced by having their former and founding Music Director Stuart Canin as the featured soloist in the second work on the program, Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto in D minor (an early composition, written when he was just 13). His presence created a visible enthusiasm on the faces of the musicians- more than a few of them couldn't keep from smiling through much of the piece, frequently casting admiring glances at him. When it was finished, the response can only be described as extremely enthusiastic from the both audience and orchestra, including some stomping of feet on the stage. As for the work itself, it supports the case for claiming Mendelssohn a child prodigy equal to Mozart, but like most juvenilia, it made me wish that a more mature work was performed instead, though the Allegro had energy bursting from all quarters.

Before that came Ernest Bloch's Concerto Grosso for String Orchestra with Piano Obbligato, composed in 1925 with Bach in mind but with an eye firmly set toward the future.  I'm not too familiar with Bloch's work, and one of the pleasures of the New Century is they frequently program works by lesser-known composers and as a string orchestra, the works themselves fall outside the standard rep by default. It's almost a given I'm going to hear something for the first time at one of their concerts and that was the case here.

And what an interesting and engaging piece this is. It's certainly not a piano concerto, but the presence of the piano is noticeable throughout, the score constantly drawing attention to where it is within the orchestra. Miles Graber's playing was notable for its graceful, seamless integration into the whole. This must have been particularly challenging for him because the positioning of the piano precluded him from watching director Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg's lead, and to me it appeared he was listening to where everyone else was at all times, and perhaps that's why the whole sounded so perfectly balanced. Each of the work's four movements were notable but I especially liked the Dirge of the second.

Speaking of sounding perfectly balanced, some acoustic modifications have been made to the theater with the installation of some material above the stage which pushes the sound out into the audience with greater lushness than is usually heard in the room.

The second half of the program was devoted to yet another re-working of Bizet's Carmen score, this one by the Russian composer Rodion Shcherdrin as a ballet written for his wife. I wish composers would leave Carmen alone. The orchestra took the stage with each member wearing something red- a tie, a hair accessory, red tights, etc. I'm not sure what this bit of whimsy was supposed to achieve- a scarlet nod to opera's most famous femme fatale? A reference to the blood on the floor at the opera's conclusion? It seemed a little silly to me and caused me to reflect on how the orchestra could benefit from some glammimg up, which is a ridiculous thought, isn't it? But there you have it. Perhaps its best not to draw attention to what otherwise would have gone unnoticed.

Now I don't know why, but for the second time this week I found myself at a concert thinking of The Music Man of all things. The other night while listening to Mahler's 3rd over at Davies I was struck by how much a moment in the score reminded me of "Till There Was You" and last night I thought of "Marian the Librarian" during more than one part of Shchredrin's suite. I guess that's better than being reminded of "Pick-a-Little (Talk-a-Little)" or "Goodnight Ladies," but still. While the piece was played with a lot of enthusiasm and verve, the work itself, broken into thirteen parts featuring the most popular bits of Bizet's score reworked in ways that are sometimes clever and at others obvious, didn't engage me at all and wasn't helped by the breaks between the sections, which brought the flowing music to halt a dozen times. My reaction was definitely not felt by that vast majority of the audience, which ate the whole thing up with relish, but I would have preferred some real Meredith Wilson.

The orchestra repeats the concert tonight at 5:00 pm at the Osher Marin Jewish Community Center in San Rafael. See the website for ticket information.