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Intrepid Community Orchestra

June 12, 2007

Not many orchestras are as much the creation of their music directors as is the Redwood Symphony. Eric Kujawsky founded this community orchestra in 1985, shapes the ensemble and its repertoire, conducts most of the performances, and gives his own preconcert lectures. He's an enthusiast for 20th-century composers and film music, and doesn't shy away from letting the audience know that he's also a fan of Aerosmith and The Who. The Symphony's great strength is its intrepid explorations in repertoire, which are often quite courageous for a community group. Sunday's concert at the Bayside Performing Arts Center in San Mateo was a typical, moderately bold Redwood Symphony program. The major work in the concert was Aaron Copland's Third Symphony, his large, sprawling ode to American optimism at the close of World War II. This worthy candidate for the role of Great American Symphony is a difficult piece as well as a large one, but the listening experience here was satisfying.
In his talk, Kujawsky confessed that he considers the finale to be somewhat flawed — too much grandiosity at the beginning, not enough saved for the end. This lack of faith in the composer showed in a somewhat dampened performance of the conclusion. But for three movements or more, it was a finely shaped rendition. The players had the skill to respond to Kujawsky's perceptive shaping of the work's structure and his excellently judged buildup and takedown of climaxes.
A Performance in Context
Let's be clear: The Redwood Symphony is a nonprofessional community orchestra, and you will not hear professional-level performances from it. Ensemble, string intonation, and such are often imperfect. But by the standards of its class of ensemble, the players do quite well.

The wind section is this orchestra's star; the tone is clear and lovely, and their balance of sound is well-judged. The French horns have a smooth tone with fine playing that matches well with the winds. The brass players can be rambunctious and not always there when you need them. The percussion can be a little overpresent. The strings can be stiff and shrill, though they're also capable of expressiveness. There were some difficult slow, exposed, high-pitched passages in the Copland where the first violins were wandering around looking for the right pitch, though at least they were always somewhere in the ballpark.

But was it possible for the listener to get past this and hear the shape, the grandeur, and above all the coherence of Copland's music? Yes, it was. The Redwood Symphony players have jumped ahead from the technical grind to the next course in artistry, which is the ability to convey personality and meaning in what they play. As an artistic interpretation, this outclassed the technically superior but interpretatively lackluster performance of the same work by the professional Symphony Silicon Valley, reviewed in Classical Voice in March 2007.
Gem of a Hungarian Rhapsody
Violin soloist Heather Katz isn't a professional musician. She's co-concertmaster of the orchestra and a 20-year veteran of its ranks. (By day she's a customer service manager at a first-rate library software company.) So she deserves credit for even daring to take on Béla Bartók's rough-and-tumble Rhapsody No. 2 for violin and orchestra, and she got it by the armful, walking offstage with a dozen bouquets brought up by appreciative audience members.

This work is a standard, two-part Hungarian rhapsody, with a slow opening followed by a fast conclusion, but without the smooth elegance that Franz Liszt brought to the form. Bartók wants an untamed, "dirty" country sound. The violin part, filled with grace notes, trills, and double-stops, is designed to bring out the player's personality, but Katz is too tentative a performer to fill this robust role. She has a mean glissando, yet her sound often did not carry. The part's complexities seemed more a struggle than an opportunity for personal expression.

Still, how often do you get to hear this work at all, or even read about it? Some surveys of Bartók's works ignore the two rhapsodies altogether. But they're among the gems of his folk-influenced music, and they deserve occasional outings. Katz had the courage to give it a shot, and certainly the orchestra accompanied her with enthusiasm.

The concert began with an adequate rendition of Antonin Dvořák's great potboiler, the Carnival Overture, under assistant conductor Kristin Link. As in the Copland, the winds were particularly expressive here.
A Critical Assessment
So the Redwood Symphony is worth hearing, because it performs interesting works, and it plays those works better than its members' technical skill ought to allow them to. Next season it returns to its old home at Cañada College in Redwood City (2007-2008 season information is at The interesting programs will include Edward Elgar's song cycle Sea Pictures on Nov. 18, the contemplative tone poem Old and Lost Rivers by the contemporary American composer Tobias Picker (at Notré Dame de Namur in Belmont, Feb. 9), and three large-scale works of increasing awesomeness: Stravinsky's Symphony of Psalms (also Nov. 18), Mahler's Symphony No. 3 (April 6), and Messiaen's Turangalîla Symphony (June 8).

Nothing intimidates Eric Kujawsky and the Redwood Symphony. I expect to find them playing British composer Havergal Brian's Gothic Symphony one day. But for now, we have the above works. I intend to be there to hear some of this, and anyone who enjoys challenging, interesting modern repertoire should consider being there too.

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