Debut of a Bright New Chamber Orchestra

David Bratman on October 12, 2009
The Mid-Peninsula is home to a number of dedicated amateur orchestras. Some local patrons felt there was, nevertheless, room for a chamber orchestra made up of local professionals — and now there is one. The St. Peter’s Chamber Orchestra, named for its hall, St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Redwood City, gave its first concert Saturday. Artistic Director Paul Schrage conducted the performance. On the program were two classical period symphonies: Beethoven’s Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Op. 36, and Schubert’s Symphony No. 4 in C Minor, the “Tragic.”

Schubert’s label, though given by the composer himself, is misapplied. There’s nothing tragic about his energetic, bustling symphony. The only thing tragic in this concert was the venue. St. Peter’s management is generous in letting the orchestra use its facilities without charge. Unfortunately, the church is a tiny, concrete shoebox with fantastically overbright acoustics. That this is a small orchestra of 36 players didn’t much help. Any moments of tutti, or with the French horns playing, sounded cracked and distorted. Beethoven was already fairly deaf by the time he wrote the Second, and it became painfully obvious how much more than Schubert he cranked up the orchestra in a desperate attempt to hear himself.

It’s a pity, because underneath the noise was some charming music-making. Both symphonies are superb examples of the mature Classical style, with dramatic throat-clearing openings, third movements on the cusp between Minuet and Scherzo, and biting Haydnesque wit in the finales. They’re too rarely played — I don’t believe I’d ever heard this Schubert in concert before.

Many of the members of the orchestra are recognizable from other local professional ensembles, the Berkeley Symphony among others. In this configuration this was their first regular concert. With minimal rehearsals, they set out to give a good account of themselves. There were a modest number of open bloopers and some intonation problems. What pleased me was that these were self-correcting. If the strings were off in one phrase, they would be on target when it came around again. The players were listening to each other, and working on their musicianship even in the concert. This came off better in the Beethoven than in the first two movements of the Schubert, where sinuous melodies in difficult keys presented a challenge. Schubert’s finale was right on target, though.

Ample Musical Rewards (But Needs Rugs ...)

Schrage led the performance in a sure-footed, dancelike rhythm, with a tendency to speed up for codas. Music of this kind is architectural rather than storytelling, so it responds to careful shaping of its form. This was accomplished well. The rewards of this performance came in gracious phrasing and overall sound, rather than in subtleties of dynamics or in attention-getting solos. The winds made an excellent ensemble, with the effect of an organ chorale, while the strings when playing alone had a most striking piquant, tangy flavor.

This orchestra has great potential, and I am looking forward to future concerts. If some financial angel would buy St. Peter’s some large Persian rugs to hang from the walls to dampen the acoustics, with whatever designs are appropriate for an unpretentious Episcopal church, we could have a winner here.