THE INAUGURAL CONCERT of Espressivo—‘a small, intense orchestra’ as described in their publicity—was a tremendous success under conductor Michel Singher (photo by Susan Hillyard) Sunday afternoon at the new San Lorenzo Valley Performing Arts Center in Felton. Consisting of a cohesive group of 19 musicians, the orchestra presented four works requiring from nine to thirteen players each. Unlike a symphony orchestra or even a chamber orchestra where the string sections have many players on a part, this was true chamber music, with each performer on a dedicated part.
Led by violinist and concertmaster Roy Malan, the musicians are among the finest players from Santa Cruz to the San Francisco Bay Area. Conductor Singher is a Felton resident with an international career in opera and symphony and as an educator. (He is the son of the late Martial Singher, a French opera baritone who appeared often in major opera houses of the US and Europe.)
The program began with some bonbons by Mozart, Five Contradances that he composed while employed as court composer in Vienna. As a program opener it served as a sound check for the string players to test the acoustics of the theater, aided by two flutes and two horns.
Located at SLV High School in Felton, the San Lorenzo Valley Performing Arts Center is an intimate 213-seat theater that is the pride of the Valley, newly built and only recently inaugurated last February. It was filled to capacity. The Center can accommodate theater and musical productions even though it was not built as a concert hall. Thick floor to ceiling curtains on the stage are certain to absorb sound, and the absence of an acoustical shell can make it difficult to focus the sound. But the small space was just fine and was quite comfortable acoustically. The musicians maintained excellent balance throughout, key to a quality performance.
A capriccio in music is defined as capricious and whimsical, which describes the Capriccio of 1937 composed for ten instruments by Jacques Ibert. The opening grabs the listener with an abundance of toe tapping rhythm and virtuoso passagework, played here with assurance and clarity. The slow middle section features solos and duets in the winds that created very intimate and tender moments. Different pairings of instruments provided a wide palette of colors.
Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll is about the only small work in this composer’s output of large operas. Composed as a birthday tribute to his wife and performed for her as a surprise at home, its thirteen instruments in this case created a lovely atmosphere of sound. The strings opened and closed the piece with delicacy and a beautiful balance. Conductor Singher shaped the phrases naturally and with a minimum of movement. The work is subdued in volume, and is often played softly throughout. But this performance had a remarkable range of dynamics, without ever reaching a real forte.
Michel Singher conducts with no excessive movement, never distracting from the music. He allows the players freedom while providing a clear and steady beat. This is real chamber music, after all, and Singher’s leadership was dependable without interfering.
The final work was the seldom-played Kammermusik No. 1 for twelve players by Paul Hindemith. One of eight works composed in the 1920s, all with the title Kammermusik (chamber music), they require different instrumentation and a small number of players. Each is very demanding, both technically and rhythmically. Hindemith was a composer who had no interest in modernistic techniques that were emerging in the last century. His musical language is unique, avoiding traditional tonality but never edgy or overly dissonant. Rhythmic complexities challenge the performers who delivered this work with solid virtuoso playing. The slow movement was especially lyrical, featuring a tender and delicate trio for flute, clarinet and bassoon. The last movement is very active, with a thrilling xylophone passage. When this music is expertly played as it was on this concert, the listener can easily follow the action. Though the original score calls for harmonium, a small, portable organ, it is often replaced by accordion, as on this program. With a nod to her musical roots, the part was ably covered by Linda Burman-Hall.
The concert was produced by the San Lorenzo Valley Foundation for Education as a fundraiser for local schools. The next concerts of Espressivo will take place in Santa Cruz January 7 next year, in a reduced orchestration of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, and, on April 7, in masterpieces by Schoenberg and Stravinsky.