If you’re the Peninsula Symphony, performing at the San Mateo Performing Arts Center last Friday, you have a musical dilemma. You have a cello concerto and a clarinet concerto, but what are they doing on the same stage at the same concert? How about another concerto, for both cello and clarinet together? But there aren’t many works for this combination. It’s easy, though, if your clarinetist is Jonathan Russell. You commission one to be composed by him.
The result was that Peninsula Symphony music director Michell Sardou Klein led Russell in Debussy’s Premiere rapsodie, cellist Nathan Chan in Edouard Lalo’s Cello Concerto in D minor, and both in Russell’s Double Concerto.
The Debussy piece impressively well-melded the soloist and the orchestra. This performance gave increasing energy, leading to a smashingly tangy conclusion from a lurking opening. Russell is a real virtuoso with true command over his instrument’s range of expression.
Lalo, also a French composer of an earlier generation than Debussy’s, doesn’t have much of a modern reputation. His Cello Concerto, though, is that rare thing, a showpiece with substance. It has the same stomping energy as his more famous Symphonie Espagnole for violin, with a load of rattlingly strong melodies for soloist. Chan, at age 20, had the sinewy strength to pull off an exciting performance even without the robustness of a more mature cellist. Lalo saw to it that the work was hefty enough, and he wouldn’t let the orchestra hide behind the soloist either, though it sometimes tried.
Russell’s concerto could have been a mixture of the Debussy and Lalo styles, though it wasn’t quite. The first of its two movements is Debussy-like in its slow and thoughtful approach. But it has the plain harmony, and the dark and woody air (especially with these instruments for soloists), of American nationalist composers of the mid-20th century. Long, expressive, sometimes rambling, melodic lines from the soloists played over gently throbbing beats for orchestra. The piece reached its highlight whenever the clarinet and cello played in unison. They sounded gorgeous together. The movement closed with a ringing pentatonic pizzicato passage for cello.
The second movement was livelier, but not in Lalo’s brusque manner. The clarinet and cello set up a harmonically static rhythmic figure which the orchestra took up and spun a melody off of, rather in the style of minimalist composers. The rhythmic figure continued to lurk underneath until it was interrupted by an episode of klezmer folk music, both soloists making their instruments dance engagingly. The climactic theme of the movement was a unison trio for clarinet, cello and trumpet, of all things. Russell made that work too.
As Chan is a young performer, and Russell is not that old either, Klein decided to fill out the program with early works by two well-known favorite composers. In fact, they’re not that early. Edvard Grieg’s rarely-heard concert overture In Autumn was written as a piano duet when he was in his early 20s, but he didn’t revise and orchestrate it until two decades later. It’s a rather strange-sounding work, uncharacteristically heavy for Grieg, and it was played with more color than vigor.
Although Felix Mendelssohn wrote his Midsummer Night’s Dream Overture at 17, his incidental music for the rest of the play didn’t follow until he was in his 30s. Selections from the incidental music were what we heard, led by the symphony’s assistant conductor, Nathaniel Berman. This was a selection emphasizing Shakespeare’s lovers and mechanics more than his fairies. The Wedding March in particular was stately and grand.
The Peninsula Symphony’s final concert for the season will be May 16 at the San Mateo Performing Arts Center, and May 17 at Flint Center in Cupertino, featuring Youjin Lee in Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto, plus Brahms’ Fourth Symphony and a rare and delightful treat, Carl Nielsen’s Helios Overture.