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.