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[whitespace] New Century Chamber Orchestra Passing the Invisible Baton: This year marks the end of Stuart Canin's tenure with the New Century Chamber Orchestra.

Stuart Canin winds up a stellar tenure with New Century Chamber Orchestra

By Greg Cahill

THE NEW CENTURY Chamber Orchestra and its brilliant musical director, Stuart Canin, have enjoyed an extended run of good fortune over the last two years. The Marin-based conductorless ensemble's second CD, Written With the Heart's Blood (New Albion), garnered a coveted Grammy nomination, the group's concert audience nearly doubled and Canin--who has served as concertmaster for such big-name Hollywood films as Forrest Gump and Schindler's List--contributed a violin track to the film Titanic. You can hear him during the climactic "and the band played on" scene.

But unlike the ill-fated band depicted in James Cameron's Oscar-winning blockbuster, Canin is moving on from his current post this spring while he's on top, so to speak. "There are a lot of forces moving one through life," says Canin, 72, "and there comes a time when you want to be, in a sense, your own boss."

That's a sentiment that underlies the innovative orchestra itself, which just released its third CD, Echoes of Argentina (d'Note). The 15-member string ensemble often performs standing in a semicircle around the audience. It gives its players artistic freedom unheard of before NCCO was formed, springing from a desire to break away from the regimented, "punch-the-clock" music-making that symbolizes most classical groups.

"I'm not in any sense retiring from the violin," Canin explains, "but the position is quite time-consuming--I do a lot of administrative work, and the programming itself takes a lot of time, so it's become a nine- or 10-month position rather than the three or four months that we actually perform."

Indeed, Canin's new job--as guest concertmaster of the New Japan Philharmonic in Tokyo, under the guidance of music director and longtime collaborator Seiji Ozawa--will give him a high profile and a chance to perform without the constraints of administrative work.

"This has been a difficult decision to make," Canin admits. "The New Century Chamber Orchestra has been a great source of joy for me over the last six years. It has kept me more active than I had ever anticipated. But I feel that the time has come to pass on our 'invisible baton' and allow myself the opportunity to spend time with my family and my grandchildren and to do some of the traveling my wife and I have talked about for years.

"I also feel by the end of the season it will be appropriate for me to let the orchestra try new ideas and explore new paths. Wait until you see this year's program. I'm going out with a bang, not a whimper."

The opening program of the new season, which brings the NCCO to the First United Methodist Church in Palo Alto on Jan. 15, features a reprise of Shostakovich's Octet from Written With the Heart's Blood, an obscure piece by Russian composer Alfred Schnittke, and Tchaikovsky's seldom performed Serenade.

CO-FOUNDED IN 1992 with Mill Valley resident Miriam Perkoff--who later left to create her own Stratas Ensemble--the orchestra used a conductorless format that was unique at the time. Ask Canin the greatest challenge of directing a conductorless ensemble and he laughs gently.

"Well, you've hit on it right there--directing a conductorless ensemble," he says. "Since it's a pretty free-wheeling organization, and everyone comes on board knowing that there are no constraints--you can contribute what you feel in terms of how fast or how slow, or how loud or how soft you can play a certain piece--everyone has their own idea of how things should be done."

As the music director, Canin must "sort through those ideas and decide how everything will go. That process is nonexistent in a full-size symphony, in which a conductor says things will go a certain way and that's that.

"So the challenge is to put together an interpretation that has a certain point of view musically and doesn't resemble the camel, which is a horse put together by a committee," he adds with a laugh.

Canin is especially fond of the idea of a string orchestra, "because there is a whole body of literature that hasn't been played and is ignored by the big orchestras--apparently the boards of governors only like to see 100 people onstage."

This year, New Century is experimenting with that all-string format, however, by adding one or two nonstring players for select pieces. For instance, in February the ensemble will give several performances of Britten's Serenade for Tenor Horn and Strings, featuring David Krehbiel, principal French horn player in the San Francisco Symphony, and Norman Shankle, a rising star at the San Francisco Opera.

Canin hopes those performances will signal a continuing commitment to the spirit of experimentation that is the foundation of the NCCO. "I'd hope that the orchestra will continue to be innovative and display a good balance of music that will last forever," he says, "your Tchaikovsky Serenade or Bartók Divertimento, great pieces that are never heard in full symphony concerts and that should be heard. And I hope that whatever is in the mind of some younger musical director, innovation is always there.

"I think the future looks pretty bright."

The New Century Chamber Orchestra performs Friday (Jan. 15) at 8pm at the First United Methodist Church, 625 Hamilton Ave., Palo Alto. Call for ticket information. (415/392-4400)

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From the January 14-20, 1999 issue of Metro.

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