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Smaller Scale

November 19, 2004

Tamaki Kawakubo

Edwin Outwater

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By David Bratman

Three medium-sized works by composers known for their sunny, genial musical personalities: it could have been the intelligent listener's classical pops concert, except that that's not how Edwin Outwater led a chamber orchestra version (only four cellos, for instance) of the San Francisco Symphony.

The centerpiece was the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto (the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto in E Minor, this time, not the D Minor juvenilia piece that sometimes shows up and confuses people). Not Mendelssohn's airiest music by any means, it's still a short, placid work, as great violin concertos go, with a notably light, bouncy finale. Particularly in the first movement, soloist Tamaki Kawakubo and the orchestra gave a slow, thoughtful, lyrical performance — the very opposite of perfunctory — that brought the work out in its best light and won me over in a way other performances have not done. Rhythmic exactitude and a sure sense of phrasing were the secrets.

Kawakubo brought forth from her Stradivarius violin a dry, sometimes ringing but more often buzzing, sound — a bit odd at times, but at least avoiding screeching. In the more lyrical sections, she was able to coax a mellower tone out of the instrument, particularly on the G string: there was some real modulation of style going on in her performance. The dry violin sound cut through the orchestra very well, helped by Mendelssohn's light orchestration and the small size of the ensemble.

Firm substance

Haydn's “Oxford” Symphony is medium-sized by overall symphony standards, but pretty hefty by Haydn's. It has so much trumpet and drum that you think it ought to be in C Major instead of G; it has a large, thorny opening movement (completely defying later notions of sonata form, with no clear second theme, and as much development in the supposed recapitulation as in the development section); and the slow movement is almost excessively stately, with a stormy, rhythmically irregular middle section that seems a forerunner of the outbursts in Schubert's “Unfinished.”

There are fugal episodes that must have pleased the academic Oxford audience. And there's plenty of Haydn's wit, particularly in the form of odd unexpected pauses as much as two bars long. At a few spots where Haydn was about to throw in something unlikely, Outwater took a fraction of an extra beat to throw us further off guard. Unfortunately, he did this with the accented off-beat entrance of the horns and bassoons at the start of the Trio, spoiling some of the disorienting effect of this thoroughly syncopated section.

For a 20th-century offering we had Bohuslav Martinu's Sinfonietta La Jolla. Martinu can be defined as the kind of composer who would not take offense when commissioned, right at the time of the serialist takeover in 1950, for a work specified in the contract to be “tuneful and easy to listen to.” He wrote that way naturally, but without sacrificing depth, complexity, or even dissonance. If Martinu were heard more often, audiences might have less of an automatic allergic reaction to modern music. This might be the first time I've heard his orchestral work live. I had to discover his strikingly distinctive music from records, not concerts nor radio.

Aptly done

Basically neo-classical, Martinu's orchestral works — especially of the 1940s — have a crisp, crunchy sound made by supporting a light, clear orchestration with underlying piano chords and occasional percussion. The Sinfonietta is the apotheosis of that 1940s style. Like many other composers' works with that title, it's short, jumpy, and irregular. And here Martinu brings the piano out from its usual supporting role and gives it an obbligato part, played, as always when a keyboard is needed in this orchestra, by the indispensable Robin Sutherland. But the work didn't sound short or jumpy in this performance: Outwater and the orchestra took it very broadly and gave it heft that made it sound more like a full symphony that happened to be scored for chamber orchestra.

This concert was tucked away in an odd corner of the Symphony schedule, performed just twice: a Thursday matinee at Davies and an evening at Flint Center. Perhaps the planners did not think much of the menu, but I'd enjoy hearing interestingly mixed programming of this sort more often.

(David Bratman, librarian, lives with his lawfully-wedded soprano and a wallful of symphony recordings.)

©2004 David Bratman, all rights reserved