The Master Sinfonia Chamber Orchestra, which normally performs between Menlo Park and Los Altos, is a small amateur ensemble with big ambitions. Though it usually musters between 35 and 45 players, it tackles major works normally performed by an orchestra twice that size.
Saturday’s concert at Valley Presbyterian Church in Portola Valley, under music director David Ramadanoff, presented two of those large masterpieces: Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 and Dvorak’s Symphony No. 8. Valley Presbyterian is a good place for a chamber orchestra to sound big, as it’s a small church, with barely enough space around the chancel for an ensemble even of this size. The acoustics are good and the sound comes out full.
Rachmaninoff’s Second Concerto, though it’s fallen behind his Third in renown ever since the movie “Shine” came out, has as many lovely tunes that have been adapted into popular songs as any classical piece does. It was played by soloist Akimi Fukuhara in as lyrical and flowing a style as Rachmainoff’s mighty and expressive writing permitted. She received solid support from the orchestra, whose small size put the piano sound to the forefront, just not too exposed.
Each of Dvorak’s symphonies is better than the one before it, culminating in the famous “Symphony from the New World.” The Eighth immediately precedes it, so it’s the next best one by this talented composer. In contrast to the rigid, four-square style of the “New World,” the Eighth is rhapsodic and casual. Ramadanoff conducted it in a relatively constrained manner, with the sections marked off clearly. This was less of a rhapsodic performance than the work often gets, but its beauty and relaxed quality still came through, especially in the slow movement.
Possibly the limitations of the non-professional musicians’ skills led to some of the interpretive choices. What was certainly true is that the size and balance of the orchestra affected the sound greatly. The strings tended to be tentative and hesitant, and, as often in amateur groups, had intonation problems. What was remarkable is that, with string sections only half the size of a full orchestra’s, that mattered little. Whenever the strings were playing with the support of other instruments, Ramadanoff let those take the lead. So a melody intended by Dvorak as cellos backed by clarinets and horns became a wind sound with the strings beefing it up.
The result gave a sound a little like early movie music, which was intentionally scored that way. The music became bright and colorful. Master Sinfonia’s wind and brass players are bold and daring, and impressively skilled. The combination of the balance and the talent of the playing gave the concert its joy.
One other work completed the program. Last year, the Master Sinfonia premiered a four-movement “Monterey Suite,” by contemporary composer Jeremy Cavaterra. For Saturday’s concert, Cavaterra provided an appendix in the form of a new, fifth movement, this one depicting a marine safari and whale watch. It was lively, churning, expressively seaworthy music, with a bit of the salty sound of the “Sea” and “Antarctic” symphonies of the English composer Vaughan Williams. It made me sorry I hadn’t heard the earlier installments.