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Bowing out: New Century Chamber Orchestra musical director Stuart Canin.

New Century Chamber Orchestra starts '98-'99 season--and a farewell tour

By Greg Cahill

NINETEEN-ninety-seven proved a banner year for the New Century Chamber Orchestra and its brilliant musical director, Stuart Canin. The Marin-based conductorless ensemble's second CD, Written with the Heart's Blood (New Albion), garnered a coveted Grammy nomination, NCCO's concert audience nearly doubled, and Canin--who has served as concertmaster to 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 director of 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 ensemble often performs standing in a semi-circle around the audience and 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," Canin explains, "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," says Canin. "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 our 'invisible baton' and allow myself the opportunity to spend time with my family, my grandchildren, and to do some of the traveling my wife and I have talked about for years.

"I also feel that 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 [which begins Jan. 14 in Berkeley]. I'm going out with a bang, not a whimper."

The opening program of the new season, which brings the NCCO to Osher Marin Jewish Community Center in San Rafael on Jan. 17, 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."

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 music director, I have to 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.

Co-founded in 1992 with Mill Valley resident Miriam Perkoff--who later left the NCCO to create her own Stratas ensemble--the conductorless format at the time of its inception was an entirely unique concept. "I liked the idea of a string orchestra," Canin adds, "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, the NCCO is experimenting with that all-string format by adding one or two non-string 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, 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 Sunday, Jan. 17, at Osher Marin JCC, 200 N. San Pedro Road, San Rafael. For ticket information, call 415/479-2000. For programming and subscription ticket information about NCCO's 1998-99 season, call 415/381-6226.

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From the January 7-13, 1999 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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