By Don Adkins

ESPRESSIVO, a group that describes itself as “a small, intense orchestra,” presented a concert on Sunday afternoon at the Colligan Theater in the Tannery Arts Center in Santa Cruz. The program featured three works, spanning almost 200 years, which utilized eight, nine and ten instrumentalists in a variety of combinations conducted by artistic director Michel Singher. The program began with Franz Lachner’s Nonet (1875). After intermission an early, short Beethoven octet, Rondino (1795) was followed by Dixtuor (1987) by Jean Francaix. Fifteen different musicians from Santa Cruz and the greater bay area performed in different instrumental combinations.

The Colligan Theater is a wonderful venue for chamber music. The space is not too large and the seating is comfortable with excellent sightlines. The acoustics (at least for the audience) are superior with just a tiny bit of ring to the room. A bonus for this concert was the stage setting. The resident Jewel Theatre had just finished a production the week before which utilized a set that looked like an older, comfortable living room. They left the set in place, giving the impression that we were hearing chamber music performed in someone’s house. The players dressed casually, further enhancing the effect of friends sitting around playing music.

The musicians, however, were not just regular folk. The quality of the individual players was uniformly high and there were just a few rare moments when you felt things were not going as well as possible. This is the nature of live performance and the insignificance of the awkward bits was more than compensated for by an abundance of good music. Conductor Singher led the group in an understated manner, keeping things together without drawing attention to himself. The overall effect was one of skillful competence with frequent moments of individual musical playing. The most common ensemble problem was limited to a few instances of large group attacks but this is getting a bit more picky than usual.

Several players carried a larger load than others. Violinist Shannon Delaney D’Antonio (pictured above) was especially prominent in the Lachner Nonet which feels, at times, like a violin concerto. She also had a large share of work in the Francaix Dixtuor. Although the other players had their moments to shine, clarinetist James Pytko seemed to be pushed to the front more often by the composers’ choices. He handled everything with fluent technique and a good sense of musical expression.

The main problem with the concert was the choice of music. The Lachner Nonet, although written in the later 1800s was a fairly conservative and mostly uninspiring piece. The orchestration choices tended to mask the unique qualities of the individual wind instruments which is usually one of the delights of small group compositions blending strings and winds. The players made a good effort to adjust balances to let the winds stand out but were unable to overcome the fairly dull sound built into the piece. The Beethoven Octet is an extremely young opus intended for performance during a banquet and, although charming at times, had nothing in it that identified its composer as the Beethoven we expect.

The Francaix Dixtuor, on the other hand, was a delightful piece with a good sense of humor. It was definitely rooted in popular music with hints of jazz, tango, dance halls and clever movie scores. The orchestration finally allowed the listener to hear the winds’ signature tone qualities. Its upbeat ending put a nice buzz on this concert.