'String Spectacular' displays symphony's strengths

DOWNEY - The Downey Symphony regaled an intimate and enthusiastic audience at its first concert of the new year this past Saturday night with a program that was superbly chosen to display its strengths as a string ensemble.A longstanding concert tradition of musical program selection was also in evidence, with works embodying Baroque, Classical, Romantic, and Contemporary periods. In fact, the life spans of the composers represented almost, though not quite, fit neatly into 17th, 18th, 19th, and 20th century time frames as well. The evening's first offering was the Sinfonia Alla Rustica by Antonio Vivaldi, who, along with his contemporaries Bach and Handel, represent the Big Three of Baroque era composers. Taking just under four minutes to perform, the sinfonia is really a miniature, including the fast-slow-fast structure of its three brief movements, which mirror the shape of its big brother, the concerto. As a tool for program selection, in addition to representation from the major musical epochs, it's often quite useful to think of a classical music performance as being a bit like a multi-course dinner. This too is an apt description of Saturday's concert. Using this simile, Vivaldi's Sinfonia could also be described as a light, delectable appetizer. Written for strings and basso continuo (which, for you jazz buffs, is like a bass line with chord changes), the cellos and basses double each other throughout in octaves, leaving a transparently light texture above from violins and violas. The concert's second selection can also be thought of as an appetizer--two short string arrangements of Irish folk songs by the Australian-American composer, Percy Grainger. Yet what a contrast in musical vocabulary compared to the Vivaldi! The Grainger arrangements provided a striking twentieth-century filmic approach to harmonic and orchestral texture. Specifically, low cellos presented the opening melody in the first tune, which we Americans know as "Danny Boy," over a bed of lush low-voiced harmony. The second piece, a combination of two Irish reels, or dance tunes, again began with a playful cello melody, this time accompanied by pizzicato, "plucked," strings, and continued with additional melodic writing in the lower range of the cellos. The third piece on the program, Mozart's fourth Violin Concerto, could be described as a "main dish," with a more expansive architecture than the first two selections, and displaying fully developed structural aspects only hinted at in the Vivaldi, yet characteristic of the Classical period. It is fitting that the artist was sixteen-year-old Youjin Lee, as Mozart himself was only nineteen when he wrote the piece. Miss Jin performed with a technical mastery and a musical maturity well beyond her years. In the trumpet-like fanfare of the opening of the first movement, the violin made its first entrance high in its upper register, loud, clear and self-assured. Likewise, the cadenzas--improvisatory-sounding solo sections where the orchestra lays out--were confidently and musically rendered. Still another thematic tie-in to the other selections in the concert is that Mozart in the third movement incorporated tunes familiar to the audiences of his day. So--from the "Alla Rustica" in the Vivaldi title, through the Grainger folk song arrangements, to the popular song references of the Mozart Concerto--listeners heard music with a folksy, rustic feel. Finally, the program's pi?®ce de résistance was Anton??n Dvor?°k's first Serenade for Strings. Here the audience experienced the full flowering sensibility of the 19th-century Romantic era, which unfolded in five movements occupying the entire second half of the program. As concertgoers know, most symphonies contain four movements. The first movement typically appears in the "sonata-allegro form" perfected by Mozart and his contemporaries during the Classical era. In this Serenade, however, Dvor?°k reserves that formal structure for the fifth and final movement, after forays into the lilting rhythms of waltz and scherzo, as well as a lovely slow movement immediately prior to the work's Finale. In sum, as an evening's experience for the Downey music lover, this concert fully measured up to its title: "Strings Spectacular." Lars Clutterham is a classically trained pianist and composer, who has worked his entire professional life in the field of music.

********** Published: February 2, 2012 - Volume 10 - Issue 42