Violinist David Dally & Ensemble Monterey

 By Dana Abbott

“SERENADE FOR AN EARLY SPRING,” presented by Ensemble Monterey on February 22, performed string orchestra music at a Monterey church, in conductor John Anderson’s rich sojourn into developing style and sonority.

Josef Suk’s Serenade in E Flat (premiered 1895) opened the concert with late 19th century chamber pleasantry. A student and later son-in-law by marriage of Antonín Dvořák, Suk composed effectively for strings at an early age with wispy tunes, logical development and classic four-movement structure. The writing is busy, the material not particularly memorable, though the third movement opens with a promising cello line and the piece ends with joyful romp. The Serenade is often encountered on classical radio programs where it sounds like what it is, pleasant but diluted Dvořák. 

Ralph Vaughan Williams studied briefly under the masterful Maurice Ravel.  Ravel focused on getting Vaughan Williams to write less densely orchestrated material. Soon thereafter, he composed Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis for the Three Choirs Festival in Gloucester. It is an innovative piece of quasi-church material based on a psalm setting by Tallis from the latter 1500s. Vaughan Williams removes the string ensemble from the divertimento and salon settings of the 19th century and develops a new template with a huge dramatic statement and massive sonority carefully contrasted with small groupings with the composer’s specified seating in the form of a concerto grosso. The piece is often turbulent, reverential and colorful within its modal harmonies as quoted from the Tallis. The antiphonal effects the composer intended were limited by the size of the ensemble, which numbered fifteen. But the piece and performance were effective, a tribute to VW’s vision and journey toward new musical horizons. 

New horizons and kaleidoscopic color were abundant in Michael Daugherty’s Fallingwater, for solo violin and string orchestra, composed for Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg and the New Century Chamber Orchestra who premiered it in San Francisco in 2013. The busy soloist was David Dally (pictured) who reported spending two months to prepare the piece. Daugherty is well known as a composer of immense talent and wide-ranging interests. He says he needs a solid foundational concept before beginning a new work. In this case it was the innovative work of architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Four movements were written around specific Wright projects, Taliesin, Wright’s 600-acre estate in Wisconsin; Falling Water, a home in Pennsylvania positioned over a waterfall; the Unity Temple, a church project in Chicago suburb; and the Guggenheim Museum in New York City, a spiral shaped display building. Daugherty opened what he also considers his second violin concerto with the soloist in exposed harmonics. The music soon develops a soaring, lyrical, nocturnal theme. The second movement, a scherzo, is dramatic rather than bucolic.  Daugherty finds inspiration in the thrusting shapes of the house within its setting.  The third movement is meditative; the fourth subtitled “Ahead of the Curve,” is athletic and playful with the soloist leading and challenging the orchestra using material that goes regularly into new but related directions. Daugherty’s orchestration for string orchestra is marvelous with variety and color. 

The audience response to Fallingwater was most enthusiastic. The piece has much to offer, fresh and varied writing, generous and alluring tune and structure, and an abundance of satisfying yet quirky endings for each movement. Dally delivered. The soloist, orchestra and conductor were clearly vivified by the score.  Anderson’s program presented three fine examples of string music from three different eras and style-periods.