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New Century Chamber Orchestra enters third decade

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Reaching new heights: Music director Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg

When music director Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg calls her New Century Chamber Orchestra “the best string orchestra in the country,” it’s hard to disagree.

Celebrating its 20th season with opening concerts this week featuring Bloch’s Concerto Grosso No. 1, Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in D minor and Shchedrin’s “Carmen Suite,” NCCO is among The City’s explosive musical success stories.

While local groups such as the Kronos and Cypress string quartets, Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and American Bach Soloists all have taken “small music” to great heights, NCCO’s rise is the most dramatic.

When cellist Miriam Perkoff and violist Wieslaw Pogorzelski started the group, they recruited a famous veteran, Stuart Canin, to lead its 18 musicians, who play without a conductor. (Canin, 85, former concertmaster of the San Francisco Symphony and the Los Angeles Opera, is the soloist in the Mendelssohn concerto on the season-opening program.)

Three years ago, when acclaimed violinist Salerno-Sonnenberg, 50, took over NCCO’s leadership, she enhanced the group’s profile. Passionate and mercurial, the Italian-born, U.S.-raised Salerno-Sonnenberg has given her all to the orchestra — investing her fame in it, rather than using it as a platform for her own career.

“When Nadja travels around the country, performing concerts, she always talks about the orchestra,” says NCCO Executive Director Parker Monroe. “She is completely dedicated to us.”

When NCCO began, the majority of its applicants came from the Bay Area. With Salerno-Sonnenberg’s leadership, and the group’s local and national concert successes, the pool of applicants now is national.

NCCO continues its tradition of commissioning new works, reviving neglected works and bringing jazz, folk and rock into the chamber orchestra setting. It has recorded six CDs.

The orchestra’s musicians used to stand in rehearsals and performances, but soon after Salerno-Sonnenberg’s arrival, they settled into seats.

“Initially, this was to give Nadja a break from standing,” says violist Cassandra Lynne Richburg. “And then we all decided to play sitting. But sitting or standing, we have always performed with energy and passion, which are still our greatest attributes.”

The group’s November tour includes stops in New York, Massachusetts and New Jersey. It will be preceded by an anniversary gala concert in Herbst Theatre at 7 p.m. Nov. 5 and a free open rehearsal at 10 a.m. Nov. 3.


New Century Chamber Orchestra

Where: Herbst Theatre, 401 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco
When: 8 p.m. Saturday
Tickets: $29 to $59
Contact: (415) 392-4400, www.ncco.org

Note: NCCO also appears at 5 p.m. Sunday at Osher Marin Jewish Community Center in San Rafael.

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