St. Olaf Orchestra brings music, delight to San Mateo

The St. Olaf Orchestra performed in San Mateo last Saturday.

The St. Olaf Orchestra flew into town last Saturday. Quite literally: The members of this student orchestra from Northfield, Minnesota, boarded their plane that morning and arrived in San Mateo in time for the first concert of their West Coast tour. The concert began at 8 p.m., which would still be 10 p.m. to them. Despite this grueling schedule, they put on an excellent program.

They came from St. Olaf College, a small but prestigious liberal arts school with a tremendous reputation for its music program. Its alumni can be found wherever they travel. Saturday’s program was at San Mateo’s Transfiguration Episcopal Church, for instance, because the church’s music director, Eric Choate, is himself a St. Olaf’s alumnus.

It’s a small church with a half-timbered interior, quite overtaken by the full-sized orchestra inside. The sound was beefy and strong. The playing was fully professional in quality, with only a few small flubs.

The masterpiece of the evening was Elgar’s “Enigma Variations.” Conductor Steven Amundson, music director at St. Olaf’s for over 30 years, treated this piece as a kind of suite. Pauses, as if between movements, between many of the successive variations tamed the incongruous contrasts with which the work abounds. Strong playing by the lower strings gave the music a thorough grounding. Even in the light moments, which Amundson conducted whimsically, jerking his baton and baring his teeth, the student musicians played seriously, with maturity and grace.

There was just as much strength and beauty in the concerto offering, the slow movement from Dvorak’s Cello Concerto. The soloist was Samuel Virguerie, a St. Olaf’s junior and co-principal in the orchestra. He was a fully mature player, offering a light and steel-tinged sound to his lyrical performance.

“Gaia” by Daniel Kallman was the new work on the program, receiving its first public performance at Saturday’s concert. Inspired by Bill McKibben’s writings on global warming, this serious and broad-spanning tone poem begins with a chaotic roar depicting the desecration of the Earth, followed by a brief lamentation and a still dark, yet more hopeful, turn to an awakening.

Amundson told the audience that Kallman wrote the work a couple years ago, but it was saved for this tour in the expectation that it would receive a more accepting response in California than in the South, where the orchestra made its tour last year.

The concert opened with Shostakovich’s Festive Overture, as grand and pompous as any of the old Soviet commissars could have wanted it, but brief and punchy, without broad gaseousness. Here, as elsewhere in the concert, the student musicians made the earnest declaration that they had something worthwhile to say. And they said it in a room-filling sound of great weight and beauty.

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