Sunday, November 18, 2007

UC Davis Symphony Orchestra

Commencing the weekend listening to the orchestra from St. Petersburg, I was enchanted by feeling and precision. On Sunday, that is just the performance the UC Davis Symphony Orchestra (UCDSO) delivered as well.

I was as thrilled as a mother I met accidentally at a UCDSO concert in the old Freeborn Hall days. She told me at intermission that her daughter had been playing with youth orchesras in her home county---dare I say Marin?---for years. She was delighted to see her playing at last with a ''real orchestra''. On Sunday night in Jackson Hall, unusually for a season opening, we were hearing a real orchestra. The musicians were ready. Did they, like university athletes, practice during the summer?

Director D. Kern Holoman opened the concert with Beethoven's Egmont Overture, in which themes and phrases, introduced by various voices---particularly woodwinds---are heard in turn. When voices joined, individual voices---or was it their echoes?---the music had a grain to it. It was a performance with a backbone, and the strong individual instruments that created it were always present in the total sound.

Violist Kimberlee Uwate, with Phebe Craig at the harpsichord, led a chamber orchestra in Georg Philipp Telemann's Viola Concerto in G Major. Ms Uwate is an extraordinary performer, maintaining tone quality and volume, whether with scale passages or leaps, throughout her instrument's range. Like Ms. Uwate, the chamber players maintained a remarkably even tone, even as changes in tempo in the second of the four movements made it particularly demanding. In the third movement Andante, the restrained viola was plaintive; in the Presto, orchestral energy and the viola's rapid, elaborate arpeggios added up to a triumph.

From early 18th to late 19th century might seem like quite a musical leap for one evening, but somehow the variability, individuality and color of Telemann and Beethoven led easily to Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 1 in D major.

Opening tranquilly, with at one point a barely audible trumpet fanfare, then leading to the low smoldering sound of double basses, then cellos, then all the other instruments, the music was mostly legato, even gentle, but seemed at the same time lush. As with the Telemann, voices remained distinct. The second movement rumbles too, but we heard a new theme and an emphasis on brass. There were fleeting solo bits---flute, trumpet, strings---and an eloquence that, toward the end, changed to defiance.

Throughout, there recurred the call of the cuckoo by different instruments, but most memorably the longer song of the flute (Susan Monticello).


The third movement, with slow drum and a reflective solo by bassist Eric Price, quickly brought in more instruments---bassoon, trumpet, horns---playing a melody with real forward motion. Briefly, the music became pretty and pastoral---twilight?---although almost always had a sustaining low tone like a dark undercurrent. In contrast, there was a lyric trumpet solo (Nick Antipa).

The stormy fourth movement began with a crash, a melody in trombones, stuttering violins, and the soft steady beat of a drum. A quiet melody by strings was likewise abruptly punctuated. From high to low, crescendo to diminuendo, bird calls and flutter to crash, there was still repetition and reminiscence. When the distant fanfare was heard again, we knew a terrific performance had come full circle and was reaching its end.

---Marilyn Mantay