Espressivo, October 6

John-OrlandoBy Roger Emanuels

PIANIST JOHN ORLANDO was the featured soloist in the latest program of Espressivo, the chamber orchestra created in 2015 by conductor Michel Singher. The innovative program offered at Peace United Church in Santa Cruz on October 6 continued Espressivo’s adventurous new tradition of exploring lesser-performed works along with more familiar ones. The advantage of performing works by Webern and Schubert on the same program created such contrasts that the listener can more easily recall features of each composer.

The term chamber orchestra is not a specific one, and can include a variety of music that requires smaller instrumental forces. In the case of Espressivo, the program can also be categorized as chamber music, meaning that there is only one player on each part.

The concert began with Anton Webern’s Five Pieces for Orchestra, composed in 1911, in a reduced version for chamber orchestra. It was a rare opportunity to hear this music by one of history’s most enigmatic and misunderstood composers. In my career as performer and listener, this was probably the first time I have heard this music performed at a concert. His music is very concise (the five pieces take about six minutes to perform) and abstract. It is atonal music with no conventional tune or formal structure. But rather than assault the listener with dissonance, this music explores the colors of the instruments. This performance emphasized the titles of the movements that abound with words like “tenderly,” “extremely calm” and “very flowing.” As disjointed as the music might seem, conductor Singher created a forward flow that provided a lovely connection of sounds that became the melody. And just in case the audience missed anything, the ensemble repeated the entire work. It was a helpful decision, as this music benefits from repeated listening.

The Concertino of 1924 by Czech composer Leoš Janáček was intended as a piano concerto, but eventually became a smaller work for solo piano and an ensemble of two violins, viola, clarinet, French horn and bassoon. John Orlando played the solo part with conviction and provided a large palette of colors on the CFX Yamaha piano. Besides the unusual scoring, the pairing of the instruments itself was equally unusual. The first movement is a duet for French horn with piano, the second is a duet for clarinet with piano, and the others employ the full ensemble.

The composer at first chose the title “Spring,” and wrote a program for the movements, with obvious evocations of nature. The first, with solo horn, represents a “grumpy hedgehog” and featured Susan Vollmer as an effective grump, skillfully navigating the demanding change of registers. The second movement represents a “fidgety squirrel” that calls for E-flat clarinet, an instrument that is smaller and higher in pitch than the regular clarinet, like a piccolo is to a flute. James Pytko delivered a performance with great character and imagination that was a highlight of the evening. The third movement calls on the “night owl and other night animals,” while the final movement evokes a “scene from a fairy-tale, where everybody is arguing.” The only drawback to an otherwise successful performance was that in a church setting, sight lines are terrible, and the open piano lid effectively obscured any view of the ensemble from the audience. Fortunately the sound was never compromised.

From the early 20th century back to the early 19th, the program closed with Franz Schubert’s massive Octet for two violins, viola, cello, double bass, clarinet, French horn and bassoon. At sixty-plus minutes of performance time, its six movements test the listener’s concentration and patience. It contains the beautiful sounds we expect from Schubert but is a bit short on lyrical melodies. It was a solid performance, however the ensemble lacked the focal conviction that each player would have brought to the party. Ultimately, the piece remains chamber music. In conducting it, Singher inhibited the energy of the ensemble. Contrasts of mood and colors, though beautifully played, were too subtle to create a memorable performance.

Espressivo performs next on Thursday March 30, 2017 at 7:00pm at Peace United Church of Christ, 900 High Street, Santa Cruz. The all-American program features music by Ives, Rorem and Copland.