St. Peter’s Chamber Orchestra Doubles Your Pleasure

David Bratman on May 3, 2010

The St. Peter’s Chamber Orchestra finished off its first season on Saturday, at its namesake church in Redwood City, by highlighting four of its own players as soloists in two rare double concertos, and matching those with two brief standards of the orchestral repertory. Artistic Director Paul Schrage conducted and — this is a budget operation — served as his own stagehand.

Gustav Holst’s Double Concerto for two violins and orchestra, like all his works apart from The Planets, is not often heard, and, like most of them, it’s a charmer. It’s a short piece from 1929, late in his career, that begins with a fugal scherzo, quietly fading into a long Andante that’s mostly for the two soloists unaccompanied. Then the soloists strike up a chipper repeated figure (a ground bass), which the orchestra picks up on. After the soloists wander back into their slow lament, it’s the orchestra’s timpani that, first softly then more insistently, remind them of the ground bass and push the piece toward its quick conclusion. The musical language is bitonal with little dissonance; in fact, much of the piece is in the jaunty English folk style that isn’t heard much in The Planets, though it’s actually quite common in Holst’s music, as it is in the often better-known work of his friend Ralph Vaughan Williams.

Soloists were Joel Pattinson, the orchestra’s concertmaster, and Leah Carl, principal second violin. (And the timpanist, more forceful than subtle, who also deserves a nod, was Jeff Redlawsk.) Both violinists played with a gratifying fluency at speed, more graceful indeed in the fast passages than the slow. Some physical separation or a more striking difference in tone would have helped distinguish them; still, there was nothing wrong with the sound as the two traded off parts, played contrasting lines, or melded in harmony. With little exception, the tone was strong and well-balanced with the orchestra.

Obscure, but Worth Hearing

As if the Holst weren’t obscure enough, how about a Concerto for Flute and Oboe in C Major by Antonio Salieri? A fair number of performers have been making a point of dusting off works by this infamous name, just to prove that Salieri wasn’t the worthless cretin depicted in the film Amadeus. This concerto makes a good case for his quality as a composer. An early work, probably from the 1770s, it sounds pert and sprightly in the first movement and quietly dignified in the slow movement; and it concludes with a rondo finale whose refrain suggests that Mozart learned a lot about composing courtly dance music from (wait for it) Salieri.

Salieri’s concerto had the further virtue of displaying two more soloists from the orchestra. These were Melanie Keller, flute, and Laura Gershman, oboe, the principals on those instruments. Keller studied with Timothy Day of the San Francisco Symphony, and has a similar warm tone. Gershman matched her beauty of sound on the more difficult instrument, showing, if anything, more fluency and ease with Salieri’s phrasing.

Filling out the concert were two well-known short works for full orchestra. Prokofiev’s “Classical” Symphony, his homage to the Mozart-Haydn age, is fast, lively, and whip-sharp. The orchestra displayed these qualities cheerfully, despite occasionally betraying the need for more rehearsal.

And Beethoven’s dark “Egmont” Overture — spelled “Edgemont” in a press release e-mail I received — was thunderous in St. Peter’s overly, even alarmingly, vibrant acoustics. The orchestra has learned to adjust for this, and mostly avoided blasting the sound to the point of distortion. Intonation and ensemble, too, have vastly improved with practice, and were shown at their best in the “Egmont.” Strings were rich and solid, and the winds were crisp and snappy, especially at the conclusion. This is a better orchestra than the one I heard in its first regular concert last October. Schrage’s conducting was at its finest as Beethoven’s slow opening gradually built into the main Allegro.