New era for New Century

The New Century Chamber Orchestra starts a new season — and a new era — this month. When the San Francisco string ensemble plays its first concert of 2008-09, it will be with violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg as music director.

Salerno-Sonnenberg, who was named to the post earlier this year after a two-year search for Krista Bennion Feeney’s replacement, officially takes the reins Thursday at Berkeley’s First Congregational Church, serving as concertmaster and soloist in a program of works by Piazzolla, Ginastera, Villa-Lobos and Clarice Assad. Repeat performances are in San Francisco, San Rafael and Palo Alto.

A virtuoso violinist who maintains an international solo career, Salerno-Sonnenberg says she couldn’t be happier about the new job. She made her first appearance with New Century as a guest soloist last September and loved it.

“It was a very positive experience,” she recalled recently during a phone interview from her home in New York. “It became apparent in the first rehearsal that these were superior players. By the time we walked onstage, it felt like I was a teenager again — that time in your musical growth when you’re discovering pieces for the first time and they’re making huge impressions on you. That was such a gift.”

When the call came offering her the job, she jumped at the chance. “It was such an opportunity,” she says. “I want to put this group on the map.”

New Century plays without a conductor, and Salerno-Sonnenberg notes that each member brings something to the mix. “It’s a magical combination of intelligence, talent, perseverance and cooperation,” she says. “You have very individual opinions about every single measure of every piece. It’s a small ensemble, but everyone speaks up,” she says. “It can be tough unless you have a strong leader who can make it work. But once you get used to it, it’s fantastic.”

Salerno-Sonnenberg, who signed a three-year contract with the group, will lead four sets of concerts each season. She intends to bring in top soloists, perform works by living composers, add to New Century’s catalog of Grammy-nominated recordings and expand the string orchestra repertoire. She’s even considering a future performance of Mahler’s Symphony No. 4.

“There’s an amazing chamber orchestra version and I don’t think it’s ever been done without a conductor,” she says. “I have huge plans for this group. When you have an ensemble like this that can play anything, you want to play everything.”

IF YOU GO

New Century Chamber Orchestra

When: 8 p.m. Saturday
Where: Herbst Theatre, 401 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco
Tickets: $16 to $54
Contact: (415) 392-4400; www.ncco.org
Note: Other performances are 8 p.m. Thursday, First Congregational Church, Berkeley; 5 p.m. Sunday, Osher Marin Jewish Community Center, San Rafael; and 8 p.m. Sept. 16, First United Methodist Church, Palo Alto.

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