Ensemble Monterey

By Scott MacClelland

AN ALL-STRINGS PROGRAM opened Ensemble Monterey’s 27th season Saturday evening at St Philip’s Lutheran in Carmel Valley. It’s a loud room who’s inverted V-shaped, wood-lined ceiling magnifies even small details and any textural imbalances.

Titled “Serenades for Strings,” John Anderson’s program contained three American works and the well-known and highly popular Serenade, Op 22 by Antonín Dvořák. Among the American works, Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings got a sensitively phrased reading from conductor and players alike. The other two Arthur Foote’s Suite for Strings of 1909—Foote was one of several American composers born in the mid-19th century who gained prominence in the Boston area in and around the turn of the 20th century—and George Antheil’s Serenade for String Orchestra, of 1948, which was getting its Monterey Bay premiere on this program.

Three movements comprise both works. Foote’s are called Praeludium, Pizzicato and Adagio, with a final Fugue. The brisk (2-2) tempo of the brief first movement resulted in some scratchy ensemble among the violins, though that quickly passed. The second movement made the bowed adagio section the B of an A-B-A form and struck a startling contrast with the witty pizzicato A sections. The fugue finale, in E Minor, proved a straightforward example of the form. The performance lasted 17 minutes, mirrored by the playing time of the following Antheil.

George Antheil (1900-1959) was nothing if not a polymath, dividing his time between the US (New York, Hollywood) and Paris, who pursued a wide variety of careers partly, to his own admission, having failed at several of them. Yet he was also a musical comet who, despite several outrageous innovations—airplane engine in his notorious Ballet Mécanique of 1924, in collaboration with Fernand Léger and Man Ray, originally intended as a film score—ultimately returned to music of a more conservative turn. His Serenade flouts both his mischievous and serious sense humor. The opening Allegro infuses its classical sonata form with snippets from The Battle Cry of Freedom, perhaps an homage to Charles Ives. (Ives died in 1954 at age 79; Antheil followed him five years later, at age 58.) The second movement, Andante molto, in a shrewdly disguised 5/6 meter uses pizzicato to quote from the first movement and, in its later pages, gave solo cadenzas to cello, viola and violin, respectively played by Judy Roberts, Susan Brown and concertmaster David Dally. The pesante final Vivo, in 6/8, was the hilarious high point of the program, described quite accurately in a note by Joshua Cheek “as if Shostakovich had gone to a barn dance.” (I could see EM board member and locally well-known musician/educator Rob Klevan silently cracking up.)

The Barber and Dvořák comprised the program’s second half. This venue has always made conductor John Anderson’s task tricky, and balances among the 13 players seemed to emphasize the low strings, at least in the back of the room where I was sitting. I don’t see any mitigating alternative except a different venue. In any case, the audience loved the concert.

Photo by David Gatwood made during EM’s Oct. 21 performance in Santa Cruz