The Master Sinfonia Chamber Orchestra, conducted by its music director, David Ramadanoff, gave a gem of a concert last weekend.
It showed what great works of music may be heard at small concerts in our neck of the woods. And woods it literally was in, for Master Sinfonia plays in the tree-festooned quarters of the Portola Valley Presbyterian Church and the Los Altos United Methodist Church. I heard the Sunday, Jan. 28, performance in Los Altos.
The particular charm of this program came in the choice of repertoire: three permanently cherishable masterworks that don’t get overplayed, often brushed aside in favor of more famous works by the same composers.
Ralph Vaughan Williams’ “Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis,” based on an English Renaissance hymn, dates from not long before World War I, as does the composer’s similarly brief and more-renowned violin concerto “The Lark Ascending.” As an ornately written, complex piece for three separately-moving string groups, the Tallis Fantasia is a challenge for the intonation and ensemble of a non-professional orchestra. Master Sinfonia must have worked diligently on this one, for though the players were few in number, the layered sonorities came out with all the antique holy effect that the composer wanted.
W.A. Mozart’s Piano Concerto in B-flat, K. 595, is his final work in this form. But despite the rule that Mozart became consistently greater throughout his short composing life, it doesn’t get played as much as some of its predecessors. But it has all the charm and beauty a listener to Mozart expects. Hans Boepple, for many years now on the piano faculty at Santa Clara University, played the solo part. His crisp, even-paced articulation brought a jewel-box quality to Mozart’s lyrical themes. The piano’s light tone combined with strong attacks on the notes resembled the sound of a harpsichord, an instrument still in use for keyboard music in Mozart’s time.
Ramadanoff led both these works slowly and graciously, lending intimacy to the presentation. Felix Mendelssohn’s “Scottish” Symphony wasn’t like that.
The “Scottish” exists in the shadow of Mendelssohn’s other great mature symphony, the “Italian.” Shadow is the right word for it, for the “Italian” is bright and sunny, the “Scottish” dark-toned and overcast. But Mendelssohn was more satisfied with the “Scottish,” which he published, while holding the “Italian” for a revision he never finished. To my ears a symphony should be serious, and the “Scottish” is perhaps the greatest single symphony between Beethoven and Brahms. Its dark tone and distinctive harmonies set the style for Scottish Romantic music from other composers to come.
To Ramadanoff, the “Scottish” is a story-telling work, even if we don’t know exactly what the story is. In contrast to the slow intimacy of the other works, he had the orchestra play the symphony fast and dramatically. The surges and broad melodic patches in the work were thrilling and beautiful.
The only problem was one of balance in the ensemble. The strings were just not populous enough, or therefore strong enough, to stand up against the rest of the players. The winds and brass were everything that could be asked for, bold and full of character. But there were balance problems when, for instance, horns and cellos played together.
Master Sinfonia’s next concert will take place March 3 and 4, featuring another great mid 19th-century symphony, Robert Schumann’s Second; another work by Vaughan Williams, his Tuba Concerto (yes, a concerto for tuba); and a lively introductory movement by the contemporary local composer John Adams. The season will conclude on May 5 and 6 with a Mendelssohn extravaganza: one of his remarkably mature early string symphonies and his cantata setting Goethe’s poem on “The First Walpurgis Night.”