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Palo Alto
Chamber Orchestra

Cypress String Quartet

Benjamin Simon

December 16, 2006

Benjamin Simon

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Fresh Playing on the Peninsula

By David Bratman

Louis Spohr is not a name to conjure up today, and has not been one for a great while. But during his lifetime (1784-1859) he was considered a major composer and a significant figure, and was more popular than Beethoven. His music is pleasant, genial, and vaguely sweet. It runs along at a calm pace without the dramatic heights or emotional depths that later ages expect of a Romantic composer. That may account for both its popularity then and its obscurity today.

Spohr was also more prolific than might appear seemly for a Romantic composer: 15 violin concertos (not including the ones he didn't publish), 36 string quartets, and four of what he called Double String Quartets. A pupil of his arranged one of these last for string quartet and orchestra, which may have given Spohr the idea to write a Concerto for String Quartet and Orchestra in A Minor, Op. 131, in 1845.

This was the work unearthed by Benjamin Simon, director of the Palo Alto Chamber Orchestra, and played by PACO's senior orchestra and the Cypress String Quartet on Saturday at Stanford's Dinkelspiel Auditorium. PACO is a training program for string players of high-school age and younger. The senior orchestra, consisting of their most experienced players, is not a professional-level group by any means but has freshness and determination. It was here augmented by guest adults for the wind and brass parts.

Cypress String Quartet

The Cypress String Quartet's members include Cecily Ward, first violin; Ethan Filner, viola; and Jennifer Kloetzel, cello. They were joined at this concert by Iris Stone, second violin, substituting for her husband, Tom, out with a finger injury. This locally based professional ensemble is noted for its educational efforts as well as for commissioning new music, but the players seemed more than usually at ease at this old and somewhat stuffy piece. Much of the concerto has busy-enough quartet scoring that the quiet orchestral backing seemed superfluous. There are only a few ritornello passages for orchestra alone, and they sounded incongruous in context.

Spohr's best work in this concerto comes when he writes for the ensemble that he's chosen instead of against it, especially in sequential solo passages for the individual quartet players or when, usually starting with the cello, the quartet members enter one by one. Here the orchestra's harmonic backing assists the soloists while remaining distinct from them. At such moments the concerto becomes a delightful, latter-day reinvention of the Baroque multiple-soloist concerto. While it's not a significant work, it's an unusual and interesting one that would be worth hearing again.

Reprising the old, ringing in the new

Saturday was Beethoven's birthday, and his present came after intermission: his Symphony No. 8, performed by the senior orchestra combined with the younger sinfonia orchestra and the guest winds, brass, and timpani. Simon led a grand, stately performance of the work. This interpretation was an artistic choice, not one made to suit the supposed limitations of a student orchestra, as was amply shown by the appetizer — a lively and quick "pre-encore" performance by the senior orchestra of a strings-only version of the "Hoe-Down" from Copland's ballet Rodeo.

Although slow, the Beethoven did not lack energy or power. In fact, the large combined orchestra became a little overwhelming in Dinkelspiel's tiny space. The strings (violins especially) had an oddly dry, wooden sound, but the student musicians coped with Beethoven's demands, achieving grace in the second movement's rather surprising lyric passages and terrific verve in some inner-voice tremolos in the finale.

The concert opened with the premiere of a work for strings alone, commissioned for the senior orchestra, by Mark Fish, a 37-year-old composer living in Belmont. His Twilight is a contemplative, wintry piece of interwoven contrapuntal layers, with solo lines for the section leaders occasionally breaking out. This is an idiom, traceable back to Vaughan Williams' Tallis Fantasia through the likes of Alan Hovhaness, that is favored today by severely diatonic composers of a "derrière-garde" disposition. Fish does not speak that rhetoric, but at least here he composes in that manner. Some critics are strongly allergic to such music, but for me the only question is whether the work has intellectual heft. Does the composer have anything to say?

To my ears, Fish does. But though he coaches sectional rehearsals for PACO, he appears to have given them too challenging a work. The lines did not always seem secure, and intonation problems were far worse than in any of the other pieces, to the point that they disfigured the music. A complexly layered work such as Twilight needs solid, rich sonorities, which it did not get in this performance. It would be worth rehearing from other hands. Still, Simon and the orchestra are to be commended for commissioning such an interesting piece and giving it a try.

(David Bratman is a librarian who lives with his lawfully wedded soprano and a wall full of symphony recordings.)

©2006 David Bratman, all rights reserved