Hidden Valley String Orchestra

By Dana Abbott

STEWART ROBERTSON, music director of the Hidden Valley Strings, described the Saturday afternoon concert accurately as “bits,” small pieces not often given a chance to shine. He noted that current classical radio programming is increasing its audience by avoiding broadcasting long compositions. Rather its programs intersperse individual movements, arias, dances and whatnot. Thus the programming is not a radio concert but rather a musical background.    

The first bit selected for presentation was Air and Dance by Frederick Delius. Delius’ music does not have much traction with American audiences though some pieces do allure. Air and Dance was tropical in feel, though diffuse, reflecting a time Delius spent in Florida. Its Dance episode was so well connected to the Air and so lacking in strong rhythmic profile as to make it almost underdefined.

Antonín Dvořák provided finer inspiration with his skillful setting in Nocturne, or night music. It began with shifting chromatic harmonies, unusual for him, suggesting dreamy sleep. The piece moved through the night into an early morning, new day sequence with a brighter profile. 

The final two pieces before the intermission were the musical heart of the program. Gerald Finzi’s evocative Ecologue for Piano and String Orchestra is frequently heard on classical radio. Heard on this occasion his Romance for String Orchestra was crafted from similar harmonies and even more structure despite its brevity. This is suggestive English landscape music at a very high level.

A seated harpist joined the orchestra to conclude the opening half with the Adagietto from the Fifth Symphony of Gustav Mahler, the longest and most concentrated piece of writing on the program. The music seems to evolve in a smooth line without a defined tune yet morphing into a coherency. The performance was intense, building to a powerful climax and then dying away. Adagietto may not be a piece one walks away humming, but it is a musical journey worth taking, a love letter to the composer’s wife.

If the Dvořák, Finzi and Mahler were precious bits, the second part of the program was of less exalted material. It opened with a string quartet movement from Efrem Zimbalist, an estimable violinist and teacher. (In fact, concertmaster Roy Malan was a Zimbalist student.) The double bass player sat out the movement, Andante con moto, which favors the second violins, using cellos then adding violas in the opening. The movement’s precision evidences high craftsmanship but lacks an entrancing theme that stays in the listener’s mind. This reviewer was left wondering if Zimbalist could write a good tune. The effect was impressive yet academic.

Robertson had praised the decision to program the complete Serenade for String Orchestra by Polish composer, Mieczysław Karłowicz. His Serenade, a student work, is well laid out for the strings–clearly organized, easy to follow. But the themes, the harmonies, the instrumental voicing and even the keys used are very similar in all four movements, evolved into folk dance-based café orchestra music of Central Europe. Needed color and contrast were missing. This piece might have been better presented in excerpt, a “bit.”   

The Hidden Valley String Orchestra members, sixteen strong, perform standing except for cellists and the harpist, used in the Mahler. The players produced refined, often lush tone with burnished phrasing. The demands and opportunities in the scores were met. The first-rate Dvořák, Finzi and Mahler were small in scale but of gem-like polish in fit and finish.

Music in May

By Scott MacClelland

THE TWELTH ANNIVERSARY edition of Music in May, the annual chamber music festival founded by violinist Rebecca Jackson, sold out the Samper Recital Hall at Cabrillo College on the weekend. The first of two concerts, Saturday night, featured acclaimed violinist and new music advocate Jennifer Koh in a circumspect bramble for violin and piano titled Tocar (Touch) by Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho and an obscure early string trio by Beethoven. The program note about the Saariaho, based on her own words, was opaque with mostly conceptual generalities and so few specifics that it thankfully left the music to fend for itself. But that didn’t turn out so well either. Its greatest virtue was brevity; seven minutes. The violin part dabbled in harmonics, portamento, bowing on two strings (double stops), and bowing on top of the bridge (“sul ponticello”) for squeaky metallic sounds—every technical trick you could imagine without ever condescending into what the violin does best: sing. The pianist, Thomas Sauer, faithfully followed the composer’s vision but in a decidedly supporting role contrary to the notes. He used the sustain pedal a lot, which proved to be the only source of warmth for the duration.   

String trios were the pieces Beethoven used to prepare for his launch in writing string quartets. (The examples of quartets by Haydn and Mozart actually intimidated the Bonn native in the 1790s.) But the greatest composer in history to go deaf muscled his way brashly even while honoring the classical models perfected before he came to town. With only three movements, missing a true slow movement, the polished reading lasted a full 25 minutes. Joining Koh were violist Dimitri Murrath and cellist Wilhelmina Smith.

Following the interval, at which attendees were invited to purchase copies of Jackson’s new book, Arben, a biography of her mentor, co-written with her father John Jackson, came Dvořák’s “Dumky” Piano Trio in E Minor, his last and greatest work in the form. Violinist Hee-guen Song and pianist Elizabeth Schumann joined cellist Jonah Kim for the most vivid and memorable performance of the evening. The work itself is on par with the great Dvořák masterpieces of his last decade. (During a subsequent phone call, Kim compared it to the composer’s cello concerto as “concerto lite.”) In fact, the six-movement piece is a cello concerto in disguise. And in Kim’s case, all the more so. He is a dominant artist in any context, musically and physically. Even his facial expressions were part of the show, and his colleagues on stage were loving his flirtatious glances. Yet, he is also a consummate chamber musician, sensitively alert to what his partners are doing.

The “Dumky” is as rich with detail as it is unselfconsciously organic. Each movement changes moods from thoughtful circumspection to wild exuberance, spirits of which inhabited all three players. But it did seem as though Kim had the deepest grasp on the work, that he had virtually memorized it even though its pages were in front of him on an iPad. At least his authority conveyed that impression. And, in the last movement, he did something I had never seen or heard before, bowing a glassy passage, without purchase on the strings, away from the bridge and above the fingerboard. In that later phone chat he told me he had made it up, finding it a natural complement to the “nature” elements the piece contains. And he gave it the name “wind machine,” a flautando (flute like) timbre that can only be achieved on string instruments.   

The standing ovation was punctuated with shouts of “bravo” and “bravi.”  

Photo by Scot Goodman