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Oakland East Bay Symphony

Karla Donehew
Michael Morgan

April 21, 2006

Karla Donehew

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We Appreciate

Pleasure in the Music

By David Bratman

Listen to some music by Wilhelm Stenhammar without program notes, and you might wonder when it was written. 1840? 1870? It's romantic but not lush, expansive but not grandiose, and it avoids emotional extremes. Actually, this Swedish composer lived from 1871 to 1927, and he completed his only acknowledged symphony, No. 2 in G Minor, Op. 34, in 1915. (His Symphony No. 1 was withdrawn, and a Third exists only in fragments and sketches.) This was an age of rampant experimentation and expressionism among composers both conservative and radical, but Stenhammar avoided what he called "sound-gorging." He remained restrained and self-contained, an author of engaging and thoughtful music, a Mendelssohn in an age of Liszts.

On Friday, the Oakland East Bay Symphony offered a rare chance to hear Stenhammar's Second at the Paramount Theatre. Even our hypothetical listener might soon guess that the composer learned a lot from his older contemporary in the North, Finland's Jean Sibelius. It was in fact Stenhammar's discovery of Sibelius' music that caused him to withdraw his First Symphony in embarrassment. The Second has a very plain structure and rambles a bit; it lacks Sibelius' concision and profundity. But it sounds at times very much like the Finnish master's work, especially in the writing for winds.

Another, more expansive composer is also evoked by this symphony: The transition passages in the slow movement and the folklike theme of the scherzo resemble slightly cut-down versions of equivalent passages in Anton Bruckner. But despite a sufficient brass choir — two trumpets, three trombones — there are no giant brass chorales here, no thundering climaxes, just a sort of country church version of a Bruckner cathedral. And the composer's devotion to the Dorian mode ("G Minor" is actually a bit of a misnomer for this work), plus the frequent use of counterpoint, result in a few passages that sound like precursors of Alan Hovhaness.

Oakland's music director, Michael Morgan, first encountered Stenhammar in a record-store bin. His pleasure in this music, and the orchestra's, was evident in the performance. The interpretation brought out the Sibelian side of the music more than the Brucknerian. It was a simple, unassuming, tuneful rendition. Emotion was expressed through tempo variation, especially in the first movement, where an acceleration during the development's counterpoint was particularly effective. The horns played smooth sustaining chords; the strings gave fine, precise work in fugal sections; the winds were highly dramatic in the central march of the second movement. Only the finale became a bit lax and garrulous, slightly outstaying its welcome. But the audience enjoyed the performance. The repertoire could use more works of this general nature.

K. 183 out of the shadows

Mozart's K. 183 is also a symphony in G minor, but it's very different both from Stenhammar's and from Mozart's other G-minor symphony, the famous K. 550. The Stenhammar is restrained, and K. 550 is as gentle and courtly as a minor-key symphony of the time could be, but K. 183 is fiery and emotional. It lives in the shadow of its successor and gets unfairly called the "Little G Minor." There's nothing little about K. 183 except its relative lack of fame, but some may remember its first movement as the stormy opening music in Milos Forman's film Amadeus, accompanying the first view of Salieri in his delirium.

This performance was a curious mixture of the refined and the rough-hewn. The strings, as in a modern orchestra, played in smooth, rounded unison, but the horns, as in an original-instrument performance, growled and screeched their way conspicuously through the music. The oboes and bassoons were equally bumptious. Morgan took the repeats of both halves of the first movement and opted to play Mozart's ornamentation simply as written, without added accents or elaboration.

Competition winner's impressive performance

Between these two sober symphonies came a bit of virtuosic fun: Tzigane, Maurice Ravel's brief mélange of gypsy tunes for solo violin. Accompaniment only joins in halfway through, so for the first several minutes there is nothing to distract the listener from the soloist's dazzling and complex display. Karla Donehew, veteran of the San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra, student at the Cleveland Institute of Music, and daughter of a violinist in this orchestra, was prepared to be on the spot. No mere student, she is a fully confident performer with a low, rich tone even on the high strings. Though a little tentative on harmonics and some high-pitched passages, she gave a particularly full and powerful sound to Ravel's four-string multiple stops. This was a sober, collected rendition rather than a wild, emotive one, but Donehew was fully involving and performed impressively as winner of the Senior Division of the orchestra's 2005 Young Artist Competition.

(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