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String Flings

Rudderless: The New Century Chamber Orchestra stays together without a conductor.

New Century revivifies the string repertoire

By Philip Collins

If the New Century Chamber Orchestra bodes of musical fashions in store for the 21st century, then bring on the millennium. Now in its fourth season, this conductorless 15-member string ensemble exemplifies the very best in collective music making and programming. Although based in Mill Valley, the orchestra tours each of its programs to five different venues in Bay Area, including Mountain View, where it performs Friday (March 15).

Thoughtful, adventurous mixes of old and new make the ensemble's concerts approachable from a variety of musical orientations. Contrast is as crucial as blend when working with a single instrumental force such as strings, and New Century manages to balance each of its programs delectably. The juxtaposition of works by Rossini and 20th-century composer Penderecki in the group's Feb. 23 concert in Mountain View offered pleasurable contrasts that worked effectively on both composer's behalf.

Programming aside, the pure visceral thrill of experiencing a string orchestra of such quality up close can not be equaled. The New Century is a crack unit, and with only 15 players, there is no room for back-row players; everybody counts.

Violinist Stuart Canin, former concertmaster for the San Francisco Symphony, serves as musical director, although his role in performances is decidedly low-key. He provides only the most essential cueing and cut-offs--usually a small arm gesture or nod suffices.

This weekend's concert, the third of the season, features Mendelssohn's Concerto in D Minor for Violin and String Orchestra, Shostakovich's String Quartet #10 (arranged for string orchestra by Rudolf Barschai) and Bartok's Divertimento.

If the predominance of mid-20th-century names in the program dampens one's interest; think again. The strings are the orchestra's handsomest family, its most artful negotiators of dissonance and its most gratifyingly sonorous. New Century's presentation of Shostakovich, Mendelssohn and Bartok promises to reveal the strong classical lineage that these three composers share.

This emphasis on making connections was clearly at work in the group's previous concert. The trenchant discords of Penderecki's Sinfonietta for Strings were delicious to behold and, almost paradoxically, far less jolting than Beethoven's volatile creativity in the String Quartet #11 (as arranged by Mahler).

Also at the February concert, Rossini's breezy String Sonata #6 (1868) and Nina Rota's Concerto per Archi (1964-65) sounded near as neighbors. The melodious elegance and suave wit of these fellow Italians covered over their surface differences--which, admittedly are not huge. Recognized primarily as Frederico Fellini's favorite composer, Rota proved his nonchalant musical dialect to be viable on purely aural terms.

Penderecki's recently composed Sinfonietta (1990-91) in two movements brandished contemporary melodic/harmonic means, but with less avant-garde playing techniques than this composer has used in the past. The primary musical argument moved between a full-orchestra motif of brutal repeated chords and deeply expressive solo episodes. The accomplished ensemble work maintained continuity throughout the music's leaps between angular chord sequences and rhapsodic interludes.

Beethoven's String Quartet #11 made for an action-packed finale, although it also brought forth the concert's only real blemishes. Mahler's adaptation for string orchestra lessens some of the original's taxing technical issues while also creating certain new ones.

The orchestral version better facilitates the work's vast range of contrasts better than the string quartet medium can bring to bear. The jolting harmonic leaps of the opening movement's chordal passages have never sounded so gripping and rich. Yet the details of the allegretto's chromatic counterpoints were made fuzzy by the quadrupling of individual lines. In keeping with the nature of Beethoven's musical personality, New Century's performance was impassioned and virtuosic, if not completely tidy.

That the New Century Chamber Orchestra even dares to venture so far south as Mountain View is as noteworthy as it is risky, for audience cultivation away from one's home base is never easy. Those who worked to create the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts can take pride that their endeavors have born such exquisite fruit.

The New Century Chamber Orchestra performs Friday (March 15) at 8pm at the mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, Castro and Mercy streets, Mountain View. Tickets are $10-$22. (415-903-6565)

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From the Mar. 14-20, 1996 issue of Metro

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