Hidden Valley Strings, March 8

By Scott MacClellandMalan_MG_6260-med

GIVEN A CHOICE, I will always prefer to hear the unfamiliar over the familiar, be it 18th, 19th or 20th century in Europe or America—or in the Middle East, Africa or Asia. That’s one of the major reasons I look forward to the Hidden Valley String Orchestra concerts, designed and coordinated by music director Stewart Robertson and concertmaster Roy Malan, even though they so far have revealed discoveries from within the Western canon. The Saturday afternoon program contained only one piece I had heard before: Josef Suk’s Serenade for Strings, composed in 1892 while he was a student of Dvořák, his future father-in-law. (Johannes Brahms, a Dvořák champion, encouraged its publication.)

Following introductory remarks from Robertson, Malan’s orchestra of 16 musicians—all standing except for the three cellists—played the Suite in Olden Style by Efrem Zimbalist—one of the giants of early 20th century violin virtuosos—composed when he was a lad of 17. (Malan was a pupil of Zimbalist.) This 11-minute, five-movement work looked back to Baroque formal practices with plenty of late 19th century cheek and charm. In the menuet the players used mutes on their bridges. Likewise, more or less, in the following sicilienne, which featured an extravagant violin solo in its ‘B’ section. The final allegro recalled the opening of the prelude.

This was followed by the highly idiosyncratic Triptych, originally a string quartet, by Polish-born internationalist Alexandre Tansman, who landed in—among many other places on his peregrinations—Hollywood where he secured various film commissions. Not altogether surprisingly, disruptions and diasporas in the 20th century resulted in many prominent artists and composers developing a style that seems to exhibit no particular national fingerprints. Tansman is one of them. The opening and closing movements are full of in-your-face syncopations and dissonances, with bouncing bows and metallic harmonics. Yet the andante was also dreamy and wistful, even tender, qualities that echoed again in the extended final presto. This piece demanded a high level of virtuosity, and got it.

Likewise, Suk’s Meditation on the Old Czech Hymn ‘St Winceslas’ was originally a string quartet. As Robertson explained, Suk wrote the sweetly melancholic piece in 1914, as the storm-clouds of World War I gathered, thus giving his fellow Bohemians encouragement while the by-then mortally-wounded Hapsburgs intensified their oppression. Indeed, the eight-minute piece itself grew stormy before subsiding to quietude.

As Robertson predicted, and as Malan and his band delivered, the Serenade brought back the smiles that, shortly before his death cheered Brahms, and encouraged Dvořák to agree to give Suk his daughter’s hand. Alas, providence would deal them sorrow. But that’s another story, leading to some of Suk’s most original works.

Espressivo, March 30

By Roger Ema1523394_10151821810432036_1189174979_onuels

MASTERPIECES by three major American composers received consistently strong performances in Espressivo’s “An American Heritage” program at Peace United Church in Santa Cruz on March 30. Espressivo, “a small, intense orchestra,” is conducted by its founder Michel Singher (left), and comprises different personnel according to the needs of the repertoire. Those needs change due to Singher’s innovative approach to building a program, choosing works that require different instrumental combinations. This program, with music by Charles Ives, Ned Rorem and Aaron Copland, made effective use of small forces of strings, winds, and percussion to present a delightful concert of American masters.

Charles Ives represents an American original, as one of the first American composers to gain an international reputation. His short work, The Unanswered Question, composed in 1906 and revised in 1934, opened the program. It is unusual for its time in that it requires the musicians to be placed in different locations rather than as one group in front of the audience. The string ensemble was seated in the church lobby, the woodwind quartet was at the altar area, facing the audience, and the solo trumpet was in the balcony behind the audience. Each of the three plays in a different tempo and does not synchronize with the others. According to the composer, the strings represent “The silence of the Druids,” playing long, sustained tonal triads, led by assistant conductor Jevon Gegg-Mitchell. Meanwhile, the solo trumpet, confidently played by Kathryn James Adduci, announces the “Perennial question of existence.” The wind quartet represents “Fighting answerers” and actively comments on the question. The resonant acoustics and the spacious dimensions of the church were assets to the success of the performance. The strings sounded rich and vibrant, the trumpet was clear and the winds continually fought a losing battle, becoming more turbulent and agitated until finally giving up to the futility of the question.

A resetting of the musicians brought them to the traditional stage area for a performance of Ned Rorem’s Eleven Studies for Eleven Players, composed in 1960. Although he has produced music in all categories, including operas, symphonies and chamber music, Rorem is probably best known for his extensive output of songs. Studies consists of eleven short pieces, each using a different combination of instruments in small chamber groups. Most common are groupings of two to five players. The work provides several opportunities for individual instruments to predominate. Trumpeter Adduci boldly opened the “Prelude.” Flutist Lars Johannesson was effective in “Bird Call.” “Contest” featured trumpet (Adduci) and clarinet (Erica Horn) in a delightful vignette with jazzy slides. “Invention for Battery” was a colorful duo for percussion, athletically played by Gregory Messa and Camille Harrison, jumping from one group of instruments to another. Most movements are about two minutes long, with the longest at five minutes as a lyrical solo for cello expressing “In Memory of My Feelings,” lovingly played by Lucinda Breed Lenicheck. “Elegy” was a rich and resonant English horn piece featuring Peter Lemberg. Vlada Moran was assigned “Presto” for solo piano, and the final “Epilogue” featured the clarinet of Erica Horn. Conductor Singher brought out the rich tonal colors in Rorem’s score. In spite of the changing of instrumental groups from one movement to the next, there was a comfortable flow from beginning to end in this virtuosic and entertaining piece. It even includes a surprise ending, a quietly sustained D Major chord.

Aaron Copland’s popular Appalachian Spring Suite provided a happy and spirited conclusion to the program. Composed as a ballet for Martha Graham in 1944, it was awarded a Pulitzer Prize the following year. Singher chose the original chamber orchestra version for thirteen players rather than the more common version for full orchestra. It is still a mystery how this composer from Brooklyn, son of Russian Jewish immigrants, became the master of writing music that so easily evokes images of rural America. The musicians of Espressivo provided spikey rhythms and flowing melodies that clearly expressed Copland’s intention. Concerts often conclude with an upbeat and strong musical statement, which exhorts the audience to applaud enthusiastically. In contrast, this has a happy but quiet ending, with hushed strings playing a sustained, chorale-like sound that was warm and cozy. It was a convincing performance, and the audience responded just as enthusiastically.