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.