By Roger Emanuels
The spotlight fell on the string section of the Santa Cruz Symphony and their performance on Sunday in Watsonville was a joy to hear. Music director Daniel Stewart programmed three masterpieces that would challenge the string sections of any orchestra.
By sending the wind, brass and percussion players home for this concert week, the string instruments were forced to compensate for their absence by creating colors and contrasts within the limitations of their four strings that can only be bowed or plucked, and with a limited volume range. And the public familiarity with two of the works required skillful playing in order to make a convincing statement.
Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings opened the concert with quiet contemplation. Maestro Stewart’s comments before the concert emphasized that though the work is often performed as a mournful lament, it is not inherently a sad musical statement, but can be heard as a deeply felt expression. The musicians created a subdued mood that was reinforced by clean attacks and excellent intonation throughout. The long melodic lines were balanced for utmost clarity.
Igor Stravinsky’s 1928 ballet music Apollon Musagète—aka Apollo and slightly revised in 1947—is a great workout for strings. Its stringent rhythmic ‘motto’ and angular thematic writing pose unique challenges. The composer based the work on the French Baroque suite. Indeed its opening movement, the Birth of Apollo, is an elaborated classic French overture of that era. Following is a set of variations and a final apotheosis. (The first variation began with a violin solo played well, though short of the opportunity for more personal expression, by concertmaster Kristina Anderson.) The performance would have served well for a ballet but, without the dancers, the music needed more rhythmic drive than was delivered.
The Santa Cruz Symphony strings showed their maturity and skill in the final work, Serenade for Strings in C by Tchaikovsky. Cast in four movements, the work resembles a small symphony. In the opening Andante (a sonatina, which is a sonata without ‘development’) the orchestra achieved a fullness of sound that was gratifying to hear. The Waltz movement was elegantly played. The high point of the performance was the third movement, Elegy, delivered with heartfelt phrasing and warm sound. A high level of performance marked this concert throughout.
Cellist Roger Emanuels was a longtime member of the Cabrillo Festival orchestra and currently teaches in Santa Cruz and Cupertino.