Thursday, March 1, 2007

University Symphony Concert

On Sunday evening in Jackson Hall, D. Kern Holoman and his UC Davis Symphony Orchestra opened their concert with the world's great crowd pleaser, the Prelude and Intermezzo to Bizet's opera, Carmen. And for solos to come later in the program, this was a good warm-up for flute, piccolo, harp, trumpet, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, and no doubt a few more instruments I missed. The fervor of the opener also prepared for the combination of romantic and contemporary music in Laurie San Martin's elegant Cello Concerto (2006) composed especially for the UCDSO and cellist David Russell. I doubt that any composer could have been happier with a premiere performance.

For the Cello Concerto, the orchestra was small and select; esides strings there was a single flute, oboe, bassoon, clarinet and trombone, two each of trumpets and horns and a dazzling array of timpani. San Martin's orchestra, with easily discernible separate voices, seemed light and quick, keeping one's ears alert to the erratic and the unexpected. The contrast of winds and timpani with the sonorous depths of solo cello and its orchestral counterparts made exciting music indeed.

The clarity and variety of orchestral instrumentation did something else: underscored and emphasized that David Russell's cello also had many voices. He played charmed melodies, sustained or shimmering tones. He emphasized tempos with plucked strings. And sometimes his attackes upon his instrument were vigorous to the point of being vicious.

To give an example, toward the end of the second movement of Ms. San Martin's two-movement concerto, the flute played an ascending/descending melodic line; the clarinet played higher, and the piccolo highest of all. Well, not quite. Mr. Russell , challenged by that rise in pitch, sustained a tone but brought the pitch higher and higher by sliding his finger up a string. As his very high note faded into silence, I was still trying to decide whether cello or piccolo had the higher ceiling.

The first movement was 'pensive and steady' as the composer indicated, but the second was more excited than 'vibrant.' For a moment, the trombone squawked and the cello screeched, as though one were suddenly on a busy, noisy boulevard. Evenutally, the voices mellowed and melody returned, but not forever. Sustained tremulous notes of the cellos seemed to set the world aquiver, and Russell's low register could make one weep. With all this agitation, the bright, quick gestures of the timpanists were hopeful flickers of light.

In other words, this was a thrilling performance that I'd like to hear again. Will there be a CD?

After intermission, the orchestral cello still reigned in Antonin Dvorak's Symphony No. 8 in G Major, opus 88. (Yes, there was Mr.Russell sitting in.) It was still a marked shift from 21st century magical elegance to this full-bodied romantic work. Opening, the cellos predominated in introducing the solemn theme, then trumpers raised the volume and violins the pitch. The second movement had a gentler, slower quality as strings and winds played the theme. But the accompaniment was almost too loud. (Given the possibility, can young musicians wake up too much?)

The sweep of violins and flutes with a descent to cellos and basses gave the third movement a sobering opening. Then duets of flute and winds were beautiful songs. Violins also elevated the pitch and the mood, and lively tempos captured one's interest. The fourth movement featured cello and bass sections in a resumption of the theme, but a trumpet opening suggested we were celebrating something. The strings and brasses that entered seemed loud and harsh. String players seemed to hammer their instruments. Trombones, surprisingly, became a softening influence. A duet of low and high strings was more mellow, but the orchestra turned the volume up for the last repetitions of the theme.

Bravos and applause were, not surprisingly, much louder than the orchestra had been. The lesson: composers like Dvorak and San Martin offer such variety in their work that no audience will fall asleep!

Marilyn M. Mantay, editor and critic