In her sparkly blue shoes (as sparkly as Judy Garland's red ones), violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg is leading her New Century Chamber Orchestra through its latest program, which repeats through the weekend. With a batch of works that twinkle and shiver like the season -- Vivaldi's "The Four Seasons" closes it -- this program pleases. It challenges. It is excellent.

It's hard to understand why New Century doesn't pack the house whenever it performs; year after year, this is one of the Bay Area's prime ensembles. Yet there were too many empty seats Wednesday at Menlo-Atherton High School's Center for Performing Arts, where the string orchestra began with a celebratory blast: Handel's "Entrance of the Queen of Sheba" from the oratorio "Solomon."

With driving rhythms and crisp-and-bright textures (as bright as those blue high heels), it paired the ensemble with the braided solo voices of two violins. These belonged to Salerno-Sonnenberg (the orchestra's music director) and Candace Guirao (its principal second violin). They helped set the evening's tone: a dozen or so of the orchestra's fine players would be spot-lit at one time or another during the two-hour program, titled "Soloists of New Century."

Most notable was what followed: Sogno di Stabat Mater ("Dream of Stabat Mater") for violin, viola, vibraphone and string orchestra, by Russian-born Lera Auerbach, the orchestra's featured composer this season. Here the audience encountered some of those seasonal "shivers": Auerbach's work refashions Pergolesi's Stabat Mater, floating in and out of that mournful song, which is meant to embody the Virgin Mary's loss of her crucified son.

Most famously adapted by J.S. Bach, the theme is delicate and direct. In Auerbach's hands, it centers a work that seems to travel through consciousness: opening and closing, thickening and growing transparent, moving from darkness to light, and then back again. Its darkest outbursts throbbed and thrusted -- piercing screams, shocking as punk rock and led by the cellos, exceptional throughout the program.

Its most transparent moments were given to ghostly string effects, and especially to the floaty vibraphone, played by Galen Lemmon, a superb percussionist. His interludes unexpectedly were reminiscent of the Modern Jazz Quartet at its most meditative. Strangely, the piece as a whole brought to mind (at least for this listener) a mollusk; something about that repeated opening and closing, that inevitable motion, fading into a death march led by the two other soloists, Salerno-Sonnenberg and violist Jenny Douglass. And then it vanished.

The program's first half closed with the Suite for Lower Strings based on themes by Bach, by Brazilian-born Clarice Assad, who was New Century's featured composer during its 2008-09 season. It's an inventive and lively piece, grabbing fragments of melodies from the master, splicing and dovetailing them, creating something shimmery and festive -- again, seasonal.

Assad "gives some love" to the low strings: the violas, cellos and basses, who for once handle all the melodies, which go ping-ponging through their ranks, while the violins perform in accompaniment. It's fun charting the recombinations of familiar songs: a snippet of the Prelude from the first solo cello suite; then the Air on the G string; and "Sheep May Safely Graze." Toward the end, tempos lagged some, and Assad skated along the edge of cornball; she has Hallmark tendencies.

Still, this is an artful piece, easy to enjoy.

After intermission, the orchestra performed "The Four Seasons," with a different violin soloist for nearly each movement of these four concertos, which chart the birdsongs of spring, the storms of summer and the like. There were occasional ensemble slips, and some instances when a soloist dove in too quickly, then had to swim extra-hard to keep up. But overall this performance was shapely in its phrasing, rising and falling through subtle dynamics, teeming through those summer storms and trembling through the winter cold.

And with all those soloists, it became extravagantly expressive, a pleasure. Most gripping was the concluding "Winter" concerto, featuring the spotless and snowy cascades of soloist Robin Mayforth in the opening movement. In the slow second movement, Iris Stone's long-noted melodies conjured the warmth of fireside conversations on rainy days. Led by soloist Salerno-Sonnenberg, the finale raised the roof. You could feel the winter winds.

Contact Richard Scheinin at 408-920-5069, read his stories and reviews at www.mercurynews.com/richard-scheinin and follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/richardscheinin

New Century Chamber Orchestra

Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, music director

Through: Sunday
Where: 8 p.m. Thursday, First Congregational Church, 2345 Channing Way, Berkeley; 8 p.m. Saturday, Herbst Theatre, 401 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco; and 5 p.m. Sunday, Osher Marin JCC, 200 N. San Pedro Road, San Rafael
Tickets: $29-$59, 415-392-4400, www.ncco.org