The love-hate relationship between orchestras and the conductors who lead them was brilliantly evoked by Federico Fellini. In the Italian director’s film “Prova d’orchestra,” a feisty orchestra rebels against its imperious conductor, knocking over his lectern and replacing him with a giant metronome.
The musicians of San Francisco’s New Century Chamber Orchestra did much the same in 1992, forming a group that had no conductor. Their concert Wednesday night, presented at Strathmore by Washington Performing Arts Society, offered the chance to hear them with violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, who became their music director in 2008.
The conductorless approach gives the musicians a greater stake in what they play and how they play it. Their warm, meltingly cohesive sound was a testament to how closely they listen to one another. They rarely overplay, allowing important inner voices to rise easily to the top of the knotted tangle of 23 string parts in Strauss’s “Metamorphosen.” As with many things that are done by committee, though, one often missed the clarity and incisiveness a good conductor can bring to an ensemble. The fast passages of Mendelssohn’s String Symphony No. 10 were a little out of synch, and the performances often felt a little plain, with most of the effort given over to merely staying together.
Salerno-Sonnenberg brings a certain cachet to the NCCO, which is on its third national tour with her, but her nervously energetic style of playing often stood out like a sore thumb. This worked well in a Villa-Lobos bonbon, the aria from “Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5” in a chamber orchestra arrangement by Clarice Assad, but resulted in one of the stranger renditions of Bach’s Violin Concerto in A Minor, BWV 1041. Salerno-Sonnenberg’s intonation was not always clean, and one missed the omitted harpsichord to realize the harmonies of the continuo part and provide some percussive contrasts.
Downey is a freelance writer.