Today’s broadcast of Ottawa’s Thirteen Strings late-October concert recorded in Almonte’s (Ontario) Town Hall included some of my old friends and provided a first meeting with some new ones.
New Zealand-native, U.S.-resident guest conductor Grant Cooper began the varied program with C.P.E. Bach’s Sinfonie Nr. 1 in G major. I’ve had many occasions to rehearse and perform this too-neglected work and was delighted to hear it led from a different point of view. Cooper chose a brisk tempo for the opening “Allegro” and the cascading arpeggios did their work of setting the mood and key. Only the puzzling halt prior to the viola’s Neapolitan shifts (measure 52, 100) marred an otherwise energetic rendition.
The “Poco Adagio” seemed a couple of notches too fast, which resulted in a certain lack of breathing room for this dynamically varied structure. I know that there can be a host of editorial editions of music from this period, but I really missed a number of trills that appear in the Fedtke edition, which is based on the original set of parts—the score having been lost.
The buoyant “Presto,” complete with all its repeats, was played with zest and verve, only missing the feeling of drive and arrival at the major cadential points.
Joanna G’Froerer was the radiant guest soloist in the D Major Flute Concerto that was written by (a) Michael Haydn (as listed on CBC website) (b) Joseph Haydn (c) Leopold Hoffmann (the last two were reported during the broadcast à la Mozart/Salieri). Another musicological mystery, but for my money, Joseph it wasn’t—the writing (particularly the interaction between the orchestra and the flute) is just too rudimentary to have come from his brilliant pen).
What a pleasure to hear such mature flute sound and be able to relax and savour the ease with which the notes melded into phrases and then complete thoughts. Special mention must be made to the CBC’s Marc Lajoie whose excellent technical engineering produced just the right balance for those of us listening at home. Cooper proved to be an able accompanist, but a bit stronger sense of cadence and finish of phrase would have moved this combination up a level. Both the first and second movement cadenzas allowed G’Froerer to fill the room with her considerable artistry. The finale was most amiable; the interjections of the harpsichord were spot on. The steady, yet flexible rhythmic dexterity of the soloist kept everyone moving forward while enjoying her near-perfect technical skill. After the final flurry, the orchestra had no option but to play the anti-climactic “play-off,” which added more weight to my doubt that “Papa” could have been the composer.
The remainder of the program jumped ahead to the 20th Century.
The Divertimento for Strings is another favourite of mine with its abundant energy and clarity of ideas. Thirteen Strings rose to most of its challenges but achieving a complete and satisfying balance (particularly the viola line that Morawetz often subdivides) is near-impossible given the limited forces of the group. Closer attention to the markings, especially the staccatos and accents would also have given this reading greater variety and depth.
Fellow New Zealander, Larry Pruden’s Soliloquy for Strings followed. Cooper’s introductory remarks assured us that the work would be “introspective, not at all timid.” The opening unison statement set my expectation on high alert for a new staple for the string orchestra repertoire. But the appearance of counterpoint, pulsing pizzicati and a Barber-esque climax left me feeling that there were too many actors on the stage for this soliloquy to make its point.
The return of Joanna G’Froerer for the performance of Bloch’s Suite Modale was easily the highlight of the broadcast. From the first notes, both soloist and conductor moved with great surety and flow throughout this deeply-thoughtful essay. The flute soared marvellously and all concerned let the music lead the way. The second movement had a compelling lilt that dared to approach fun, providing the perfect foil its second section. Clarity of line and precise articulation were the soloist’s hallmarks here.
In the finale, the participants happily combined to go far beyond the notes. Darker than the previous Soliloquy, a very personal mood was established in the flute/string dialogues; the lack of a leading tone—especially when the descending scale was inverted—added another layer of truth. The baroque-like sequences were not only tossed off with aplomb but were approached in a manner that did justice to Bloch’s place in life—just then—as the music progressively disappeared into final silence and remembrance of times past.
The concert concluded with a spirited reading of David Diamond’s Rounds for String Orchestra. As Cooper predicted, it was an “optimistic” piece. It was also a primer on string effects including harmonics, glissandi, and “Bartók” snaps. The energy of the first section was fuelled by numerous syncopations (oddly reminiscent of the Bach Sinfonie), off-beat accents, and ostinatos whose continual repetition was like being held back at the starting gate.
Multi-tonal swatches of sound opened the second section from which emerged a plaintive line that lumbered thoughtfully through the increasingly dense landscape. Here, the performance took on a wonderfully committed tone. A unison “Hoedown” pushed the finale along with much punch and excitement. Competing with some forays into two-part counterpoint and a near-fugato, the stronger willed ostinatoed sixteenths and the inevitable scales successfully brought this fine string showpiece to its conclusion. JWR