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String ensemble thrives under direction of Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg

violinist NadjSalerno-Sonnenberg (undated publicity photo)

violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg (undated publicity photo)

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New Century

When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday

Where: Pick-Staiger Concert Hall, 50 Arts Circle, Evanston

Tickets: $30

Info: (847) 467-4000;

Updated: February 28, 2013 6:34AM

Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg long ago established herself as one of the world’s leading solo violinists, winning audiences over with her impassioned style of playing.

While in no way giving up on that part of her career, she added a new role in January 2008, becoming concertmaster and music director of the New Century Chamber Orchestra, which immediately gave a boost to the ensemble’s profile.

“I had no idea what I was getting myself into and had not been looking for anything like this,” she said. “Who had the time? It was never on the horizon for me. But now that this is my fifth season, it’s hard to believe I didn’t always have this.”

The San Francisco-based string ensemble is on its most ambitious tour to date, a nine-concert itinerary that brings it Thursday to Pick-Staiger Concert Hall as the closing event of Northwestern University’s Winter Chamber Music Festival.

The New Century performed at the venue two seasons ago, and Richard Van Kleeck, director of concert activities at Northwestern’s Bienen School of Music, was eager to have the group back. “The orchestra has gotten better and better every year since Nadja joined them,” he said. “The opportunity to have them return to Pick-Staiger — a hall that Nadja really likes — is one we did not want to pass up.”

After taking over New Century, Salerno-Sonnenberg had to do a lot of on-the-job learning, familiarizing herself with orchestral music she never had to perform as a soloist and working with the orchestra’s staff and board. “There’s an enormous amount of time spent on the phone planning, cajoling and arguing — just getting the backstage part of it done,” she said.

One big challenge has been finding time for everything, without impinging on her solo career and the operations of a small record label that she began in 2005.

“You need health,” she said. “You need energy and you need determination and the will to do it. I look back at this, and I think, ‘How am I doing this?’ But I am doing it, and it’s five years now.”

The centerpiece of the program will be William Bolcom’s Romanza for Violin and String Orchestra, which New Century premiered in 2010 when he was the ensemble’s featured composer. A tricky cadenza bridges the complex, waltz-like opening movement to the last section, a kind of extended rag titled “Cakewalk.”

“What I love about Bill’s writing, among many things is that it can be so varied,” she said. “This is a guy who can write an opera and can write a saloon song. He’s kind of reminiscent of [Leonard] Bernstein in that way.”

The lineup will also include Mendelssohn’s String Symphony No. 10 in B Minor and Villa-Lobos’ “Bachianas Brasileiras,” No. 5, and culminate with Richard Strauss’ “Metamorphosen,” Study for 23 Solo Strings.

This masterwork, written during the final months of World War II, required the normally 19-piece ensemble to bring along four extra musicians to cover all the parts.

“When you think about programming something that showcases in the highest possible way a string orchestra, there is nothing that compares to ‘Metamorphosen,’ ” she said. “I was determined to bring that piece on tour.”

Kyle MacMillan is a locally based free-lance writer.

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