Master Sinfonia takes on 20th century composers

David Ramadanoff

The Master Sinfonia Chamber Orchestra, under the baton of Music Director David Ramadanoff, took on works by three of the master composers of the early 20th century last weekend. I heard Sunday’s performance at the Los Altos United Methodist Church.

First up was Carl Nielsen. This greatest of all modern Danish composers still has a ways to go in acquiring international fame, but his output contains some real gems. His work was actually the most tuneful and easily appreciated one on the program.

This was the Helios Overture, written during a vacation in sunny Greece. Depicting the sun’s rise, progress across the sky, and fall, it breaks at its height into a swinging energy typical of Nielsen’s style. The orchestra captured this bounce and enthusiasm, giving the audience a sense of Nielsen’s music I hope they’ll use to explore further.

The other two works were written by Europeans — one Hungarian, one Russian — who had sought refuge in the United States during World War II.

Béla Bartók’s Third Piano Concerto is the piece he fell just short of completing at the time of his death in 1945 (A friend and fellow composer inked in what little remained to be done). Though much of Bartók’s music is extremely gnarly, this concerto matches the Concerto for Orchestra, which immediately predates it, in being regular in form and accessible in content while remaining distinctly modern in style.

Hélène Wickett, the pianist, played the Bartók with smooth and evenly-balanced lyricism, emphasizing the charm and beauty of this music. The finale was especially lively and inviting.

The greatest performing challenge of the program was Igor Stravinsky’s Symphony in Three Movements, perhaps the most popular of his later works. Stravinsky usually claimed to write completely abstract music, but he admitted that World War II newsreels had inspired some of his symphony. It has the jerky, spasmodic rhythms of badly-cut films of soldiers marching.

In fact, typically of Stravinsky, the rhythms in the symphony are constantly changing and extremely complex. A non-professional orchestra might need to be forgiven a lot in a work such as this. But pleasingly, the Master Sinfonia had strong command of these rhythms. Especially in the lively Overture movement and the calmer Andante, the crisp pungency of Stravinsky came outstandingly through.

Master Sinfonia’s next program, on March 12 and 13, will show another side of early 20th century music with alluring works by three French composers, Maurice Ravel, Francis Poulenc and Arthur Honegger, plus J. S. Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 and a neo-Baroque work by Edvard Grieg.

Then, on April 23 and 24, the Sinfonia will reveal the beauty to be found in works by great living composers, Arvo Pärt and Jennifer Higdon, pairing these with Brahms’ Symphony No. 4, a controversial work when it was new.

Master Sinfonia concerts are given on Saturday evenings in Portola Valley and Sunday afternoons in Los Altos.

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