Last Saturday at Cañada College, the Redwood Symphony presented a program of the kind only a brave little community orchestra is likely to put on: a collection of underrated 20th century masterworks.
Music director Eric K — who has shortened his stage name from the unwieldy “Kujawsky” — chose cannily. Though the concert didn’t sell out, there was a large attendance. The audience knew they were going to get the goods.
Benjamin Britten’s early and neglected Violin Concerto was the highlight of the concert. It was played so well that it was pretty much the highlight of Redwood Symphony’s entire existence. Miranda Liu was the soloist. As when she played Bartók with Redwood two years ago, I’ve never heard a better performance of this concerto.
The secret was partly Liu’s strongly driving sense of line, together with the color of her playing. She gave vivid extruded sounds all over, crisp bounces and harsh ringing tones, but they were never ugly or misplaced.
It was also the orchestra and the conducting. Dr. K led a concise reading, with the same clear and crisp colors that Liu gave. A brief trio for tuba and two piccolos was particularly outstanding. Britten often writes legato lyric passages for the violin over repeating motivic accompaniment, and then has the soloist and orchestra trade roles. All of the orchestral players were as much on top of this as Liu was. The beefy, muscular sound was less suave than a professional orchestra would give, but it was every bit as accomplished.
The same bold style was not quite as ideal for “Verse, Rainbow, Palma” by the Japanese impressionist Toru Takemitsu. This quietly contemplative music, which the composer compared to gazing at rocks in a Japanese garden, didn’t have the same gripping quality as the Britten, and was somewhat more roughly played. But it was pleasant nonetheless.
Major solos for two unusual instruments were acknowledged by having their players seated in front, facing the podium. Guest guitarist Jon Mulvey plucked gently. The acoustic guitar is hard to hear over an orchestra, which is why it’s not usually found in one, but Mulvey’s guitarist voice is strong. Redwood oboist Peter Stahl played the oboe d’amore, a larger, darker-toned version of the basic instrument. It’s normally heard in baroque music; here, Stahl had to wrestle virtuosically with offbeat sounds less attractive than Britten’s for the violin.
The big final piece was the Symphony No. 3 by Lou Harrison, a late substitute put in when the parts for the intended Kirke Mechem symphony didn’t arrive (That will now be played next February). Redwood has performed the Harrison before, and it’s more than appropriate to play again now, as the composer’s birth centenary is next month, on May 14.
This piece was a bit rougher even than the Takemitsu, but it was still an impressively adept and rewarding performance. It was a brightly colored rendition that brought out the hearty Americanist side of this archetypal California composer who was influenced as much by Asian music — there’s a lot of gamelan-inspired light percussion in this and much else of his work — as by anything European.
The concert opened with a zippy and inspired reading of the quick and violently rhythmic overture from Bernard Herrmann’s music for the Hitchcock film “North by Northwest.”
Redwood Symphony will conclude its regular season June 3, with an early 21st century masterwork, the Concerto for Orchestra by Jennifer Higdon, one of today’s leading American composers, plus the Brahms Piano Concerto No. 2. Next season has just been announced. Besides familiar modern classics like “Petrushka” and “Appalachian Spring,” Redwood will be featuring major recent works by more of today’s leading composers: Mason Bates, John Corigliano, Kirke Mechem and David Jaffe. And, of course, there will be an all-Mahler concert.