The Master Sinfonia brought the greatest anticlimax in the concert repertoire to its performance at Valley Presbyterian Church in Portola Valley Saturday.
After conductor David Ramadanoff led four minutes of the most majestic and pompous orchestral throat-clearing that ever began a classical piano concerto, the pregnant silence was broken by soloist Daniel Glover poking out, with two forefingers, the main theme: the simple tune of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.”
The piece was Ernst von Dohnányi’s “Variations on a Nursery Song,” probably the silliest concerto in the repertoire. The introductions over, the composer takes his theme to a wild series of fancy dress balls, from a waltz to a march to a slow passacaglia to a mighty fugue, mutating the theme to unrecognizability, with a final return to plain clothes.
The performers were winningly engaged with this work. The music rang out clearly, the instruments from lush strings to buzzing bassoons making each variation distinct and comprehensible. Though this is an amateur orchestra, weak spots were gratifyingly few. Glover’s solid, plainly-spoken pianism turned out to be the perfect deadpan approach for the humor of the work. The score’s comic pomposities were never allowed to wrench it out of shape.
The concert featured another small but florid piano concerto that also benefited from this cool approach, Frédéric Chopin’s “Andante Spianato and Grande Polonaise Brilliante.” This consists of an slow, introspective piano solo followed by a fast, extraverted concerted piece with orchestra. Straight-ahead run-throughs are not customary in Chopin, but here they made for a satisfying outcome.
The most interesting work on the program was the first full performance of a work commissioned by the orchestra, Jeremy Cavaterra’s “Monterey Suite.” I had heard the Sinfonia play the final movement of this suite, the surging and dramatic “Marine Safari and Whale Watch,” last year, and I was sure I had to come back to hear the whole thing.
The “Monterey Suite” consists of five movements of scene-painting of the area. The music is tonal and attractive. It conveys imagery vividly without lushness or overt film-style picture-painting. It uses the orchestra imaginatively. The first two movements, running together and depicting the geography and history of the peninsula, have something of a rugged Americana style with striking passages for winds, brass and even a string quartet drawn from the orchestra.
The third movement portrays the Monterey Bay Aquarium with harp, celesta, bells, twirls from the woodwinds and other sounds making a rich post-romantic sound akin to the early ballets of Ravel or Albert Roussel.
The most impressive movement was “Steinbeck Country,” another wide countryside portrait. Though it doesn’t tell a narrative story, the movement includes musical references to a number of Steinbeck works. There is a solo for muted trombone that conductor Ramadanoff, introducing the work, called “bluesy.” It sounded to me more like a “Big Band” sound and, indeed, Cavaterra explains that it’s meant to evoke Tommy Dorsey, as the kind of urban popular music that would have been heard around Cannery Row. There’s also a quote from Leonard Rosenman’s music for the movie of “East of Eden.”
Master Sinfonia is not a professional orchestra, and it had some challenges here and there. Overall, though, the music was well chosen for its strengths, and it conveyed a pleasant and enjoyable program.