Thursday, March 16, 2017

Stravinsky, Bach, Richards, Mendelssohn at Rolling Hills

Martin Chalifour


COSB and Martin Chalifour, Norris Theatre, March 12

The Music Room at the Washington DC 
Dumbarton Oaks estate of Robert and
Mildred Bliss, who commissioned
Stravinsky’s concerto for
their 30th wedding anniversary.
Stravinsky’s 1938 Concerto in E flat “Dumbarton Oaks” was the first item in the Chamber Orchestra of the South Bay’s March concert conducted by Music Director Dr. Frances Steiner, and Chuck Klaus’s preview talk began by noting the major stylistic changes of direction in Stravinsky’s career, from the post-Rimsky romanticism and visceral excitement of his early ballets through the revisiting of earlier, mostly 18th century, forms (so-called “neoclassicism”) to a late embracing of Schoenbergian serialism. The positive take on these chameleon-like shifts is that they represented profound renewals of creativity, but for me performances such as the one we heard reinforced an impression of loss rather than gain.

Dumbarton Oaks is from Stravinsky’s neo-classical period, and written for just three violins, three violas, two ‘cellos, two double-basses, two horns, flute and clarinet. This bare-bones scoring sounded particularly austere in the very dry acoustic of the Norris Theatre, and overall it came across as an arid and emotionally null piece, apart from a certain pawky humor in the second, Allegretto, movement, with what seemed a listless disaffection pervading much of the performance.

Once out of Stravinsky’s sand-box, however, things improved greatly. Joined by guest soloist Martin Chalifour, Principal Concertmaster of the LA Philharmonic, and the COSB’s own Principal Oboist Joseph Stone for Bach’s Concerto for oboe and violin BWV1060, the orchestra, now up to its full string strength, was galvanized into life. The preview talk had outlined the work’s rather back-to-front history – reconstructed from a concerto for two harpsichords which on internal and external evidence was probably based on a lost original version for oboe and violin – but no innocent ear surely could detect that this was not the real idiomatic thing, delivered with spirit and warmth by everyone.

After the interval came the Serenade for the COSB by Stephen Richards, an ordained Cantor who has composed much music for Jewish ceremonial. This was his 2016 reworking for clarinet, ‘cello and strings of a ‘cello-and-piano piece written in 2014 to honor former COSB President Robert Miller on his retirement. It began, a little like Ernest Bloch’s Schelomo, with a solo ‘cello line winding up from the depths, soon joined by the clarinet (played respectively by COSB Principals David Nicholson and Richard Naill). Far from unfolding in any portentous manner, however, the work then segued into a melancholic waltz tempo which proceeded to wind, concisely and attractively, through five minutes of continuous variation. I liked it and would happily hear it again.

Finally came the big work, Mendelssohn’s Violin concerto in E minor Op. 64, showcasing star soloist Martin Chalifour. There seemed a slight disagreement over ensemble early on, and when the big orchestral tuttis arrived in the first movement exposition I did wonder, not for the first time, whether there’s something about this hall’s acoustic that precludes a proper fortissimo when the score demands it, but overall it was a satisfying performance. The COSB’s full string strength of 6-6-4-3-2 seemed adequate here, as it really had not for Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 1 at their previous concert. The slow movement, not as slow as sometimes (but then the marking is only Andante), was as eloquent as this acoustic allowed, and in the finale Mendelssohn’s sparkling and pin-sharp interplay between soloist and orchestra individuals reached levels of unanimity that had eluded them earlier.


Chamber Orchestra of the South Bay, Norris Theatre, Rolling Hills Estates, 8.00pm, March 12
Photos: Martin Chalifour (Gary Coronado, LA Times), Dumbarton Oaks

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