Classical music’s equivalent of a rock band, The City’s New Century Chamber Orchestra — an exuberant group of musician friends playing with explosive energy and having a ball — is celebrating a big birthday and basking in its growing fame.
“On Our Way,” a documentary released this month with footage of live performances and more, is an excellent guide to life in the group, which closes its 20th anniversary season this week around the Bay with a program featuring a world premiere by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Ellen Taaffe Zwilich.
On Saturday at Herbst Theatre, music director Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg and the orchestra present “Commedia dell’Arte.” The bravura violin concerto was written for Salerno-Sonnenberg as part of a featured composer program established in her first year as music director in 2008.
“I’ve always been attracted to Ellen’s writing through the years, and I felt sure she would write something unique for us — keeping in my own playing style and the talents of the orchestra,” Salerno-Sonnenberg says. “I am thrilled with the results and can’t wait to share this with our audiences.”
Zwilich, 73, a Juilliard-trained composer who studied with modern music giants such as Elliott Carter and Roger Sessions, wrote music for her husband, violinist Joseph Zwilich (who died in 1979), and her “Three Movements for Orchestra,” also known as the First Symphony, won the 1983 Pulitzer Prize.
“I have long been an admirer of Nadja’s musically insightful and dramatically fiery performances,” Zwilich says. “So it was a great pleasure to craft this work for her. I also took advantage of the spirit of NCCO by calling for some of the string players to play percussion instruments traditionally associated with the characters.”
Zwilich’s new piece, inspired by the Italian theatrical tradition that began in the 16th century, includes four movements (“Arlecchinno,” “Columbina,” “Capitano” and “Cadenza”) based on commedia dell’arte characters and a finale that brings them together.
New Century’s season-closing program also includes Grieg’s “Holberg Suite,” Schoenberg’s magical “Verklärte Nacht” (“Transfigured Night”), and for the occasion, “Happy Birthday Variations” by Peter Heidrich, a German composer who used the theme in the manner of 10 composers, from Bach to Wagner.
As it celebrates its 20th anniversary — few bands make it that far — New Century Chamber Orchestra remains extraordinary, not only for performing classics, contemporary music and rare commissions, but for its diversity (musicians are both local and from places as far as Europe) and its process; members perform without a conductor and make decisions collaboratively.
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.cityboxoffice.com
Note: Performances will also be held at 10 a.m. Wednesday at Herbst Theatre (open rehearsal); 8 p.m. Thursday in Berkeley; 8 p.m. Friday in Atherton and 5 p.m. May 13 in San Rafael