Conductor Eric Kujawsky and the Redwood Symphony brought raw intensity to a concert of openly emotional music last Saturday at Cañada College.
The concert began with the Four Sea Interludes from Benjamin Britten’s somber and tragic opera “Peter Grimes.” The interludes, scene-changing intermezzos for orchestra that are large and interesting enough to stand as a set of tone poems, are written in an accessible but challenging modern idiom that makes them difficult to play. The two slow movements have long-held high-pitched string sounds that are hard to keep in pitch. For a volunteer orchestra, the strings did well. The winds and brass were even better.
The rhythmically complex movement “Sunday Morning” was better still. Everyone stayed together on the ferociously jerky main tune and the church-bell sounds that ran across it, even at the cost of going a little slowly. And the rough storm that concludes the set was more properly ferocious than a more polished orchestra might make it.
The big work on the program was Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony, a richly melodic and surprisingly cheerful work by this most melodic and famously depressed composer. Kujawsky confessed in his pre-concert talk that he has a love-hate relationship with Tchaikovsky’s music. It’s lovely, but he finds it garrulous and in need of an editor. I would apply that criticism 10-fold to Mahler, but Kujawsky adores Mahler, so it takes all kinds.
The problem, though, is that if performers are not sympathetic to a composer, they may have trouble with deep appreciation of the music. Although Kujawsky cut a few bars here and there in the more repetitious build-up passages, he didn’t have an intuitive understanding of why even the parts he left in were there, so the build-ups and transitions sounded more draggy and superfluous than they would from a conductor more responsive to Tchaikovsky’s idiom.
Still, he led an action-packed performance, and the orchestra — the winds and brass again particularly good — gave punch and power to many a lively climax. There’s a passage near the end of the finale where the music reaches a portentous pause. Many conductors rear back so pompously at this spot that the audience starts applauding, thinking the work is over. There was no chance of that happening here. Kujawsky sped through with energy and determination, yet without rushing or skimming through the music.
The remaining piece on the program offered a different kind of emotion. This was “Knoxville: Summer of 1915,” Samuel Barber’s lyrically nostalgic setting of James Agee’s prose poem wistfully remembering the happy days of his early childhood. Hope Briggs sang the soprano part, gently caressing the words. Her voice was broad and smooth in its lower pitches, becoming more pointed and intense in higher notes. More than with other performances I’ve heard, a printed text was not necessary. I was marveling after the performance at the clarity of Briggs’ diction, when I heard someone sitting nearby saying, “I couldn’t make out a word she said,” so opinions vary here also.
The orchestra played the lyrical passages with an admirable softness and gentility. Some of the raw intensity of the Britten and Tchaikovsky made its appearance in the contrasting middle sections. Barber wanted a little more action here, but he probably didn’t imagine Agee’s passing streetcar thundering by with such ferocity.
This was a fun concert, with exciting performances of real masterworks of music — two of them proving that 20th-century music can be just as touching and enjoyable as the hoarier old classics — and I’m glad to have had the experience.