AN ALL-STRING chamber orchestra was the latest iteration of Espressivo, filling the warm acoustic space of the Recital Hall at UCSC on Sunday afternoon. Conductor Michel Singher made good use of the sixteen players under the theme “Stringing You Along,” a survey of concerto grosso, an 18th century approach to composition. Unlike the solo concerto, which became a vehicle for virtuoso display with orchestral accompaniment, the concerto grosso contrasts the sonorities of a small group of soloists with the larger group. In the Baroque era this was a favored form of the Italians and of composers in England and Vienna. It has also inspired composers through the ages. This concert included examples from the 18th to the 20th centuries.
Edward Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro, for string quartet and string orchestra, was composed in 1905 for a concert of his music by the London Symphony Orchestra. The opening sustaining chords were played with confidence. There was a warm resonance to the sound and precision in the attack. The solo string quartet, consisting of Shannon Delaney D’Antonio and Betsy Braun, violins, Ann Coombs, viola, and Judy Roberts, cello, was seated in front of the main group. With slightly more active parts than the orchestra, the solo quartet tossed thematic material back and forth with the orchestra. To emphasize the historical connection with the Baroque, Elgar created a full-fledged four-part fugue in the later moments of the approximately fifteen minutes of music. Conductor Singher maintained clear balance throughout the work, with the fugal entries clearly standing out in the texture.
The six Brandenburg Concertos by JS Bach are some of the greatest works in the concerto grosso form. The fifth in the series is scored for solo violin, flute and harpsichord with string accompaniment and was composed around 1719. This performance featured Delaney D’Antonio, violin, Vicki Melin, flute, and Linda Burman-Hall, harpsichord, appearing in front of the orchestra. The harpsichord functions both as an accompanying instrument and as a soloist. The solo part is unique for its time, testing the virtuosity of the player. Burman-Hall handled the brisk tempos with ease, tossing off rippling cascades of scales and arpeggios in the demanding first movement cadenza. The violin and flute parts are less showy, with beautiful melodic lines. The second movement spotlights the trio only. The performance was well-paced and with good balance between soloists and orchestra.
Bela Bartók’s Divertimento for String Orchestra provided a lively conclusion to the concert. Solo parts are played by section principals rather than seating them separately from the orchestra as in the earlier two works. After the late Romanticism of Elgar’s harmonic language and the Baroque clarity of form in Bach’s concerto, the spikey sounds of Bartók provided a totally different sound world. The dark and brooding second movement reminds listeners of the slow movements of the composer’s string quartets. The third and last movement is a lively dance-like piece, likely influenced by Bartók’s fascination with folk materials of Eastern Europe. Excellent balance of the sections continued throughout the concert, as the ensemble worked very well together to produce a unified sound.
Espressivo has announced their next concert for February 15, 2018, performing Mahler’s Fourth Symphony at Peace United Church in Santa Cruz.