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Northern Riches

October 14, 2008

I confess that I had not heard of the Santa Cruz Chamber Orchestra until I learned of the concert with which it opened its third season on Saturday. But it was a honey of a program that I wouldn't have missed for anything. The result was warm and delicious: two cold and austere Northern string orchestra works by Jean Sibelius and Pēteris Vasks rendered rich and resonant in the reverberant acoustics of Santa Cruz' Holy Cross Church, plus the comforting familiarity of Dvořák's Serenade for Strings.
SCCO is a small orchestra, with just 14 string players altogether. (In addition to the strings, Sibelius' Rakastava calls for sparse, almost inaudible backing from timpani and triangle, delicately provided by Laura McShane.) The potential snag with a very small orchestra is that when the composer calls for split parts in a section, some lines may be carried only by a single instrument each, creating an unintended chamber music effect. But that was not a problem here. The richness of the acoustics helped tremendously.

So did the power of the players: Nobody in this group is being carried by the rest of their section. This was most obvious with the sole bassist, Bruce Moyer. No matter how exposed his part, never did he sound like a wayward lone bass fiddler sawing away back there. He was more like Sir Galahad: His strength was as the strength of ten.

The conducting also helped carry the ensemble. Music Director Maya Barsacq favors quick tempos and a clear, dancelike rhythm. She led a lightly introspective performance of Rakastava (The lover), a rarely heard, dark-hued Sibelius work in the mode of his cryptic Fourth Symphony. It's lyrical, though not conventionally melodic. Complex inner parts, and even solo passages for Concertmaster Laura Caballero and cellist Kelley Maulbetch, blended into the general sound. This was a masterful performance.
An Intriguing Wanderer
Viatore by Peteris Vasks is even rarer than the Sibelius, and was a bit more of a challenge for the players. Although this work is seven years old and has been recorded, this was, amazingly, its first U.S. performance. Vasks is a Latvian composer much prized by lovers of somber, tonal modern music. His work bears a relationship to Eastern European "mystic" composers such as Henryk Górecki and Arvo Pärt similar to that which John Adams has with the minimalists: He has absorbed their techniques into his own, more wide-ranging style.

Viatore, which means "The Wanderer," is a tribute to Pärt. It opens and closes with a descending scale and a rising portamento slide, both very much in Pärt's style, the final slide causing the music to disappear into thin air. But the bulk of Viatore consists of repetitions of a richly harmonized, deeply consonant hymn — beginning in the lower strings, gradually growing stronger and more drawn out, and then starting to die away over the course of the piece — alternating with brief sections of weird chitterings and harmonics focused on the violins. This kind of repetitive writing can be awesomely hypnotic. Viatore came close. At 17 minutes it was either too long or not long enough to achieve its best effect.

Had I been planning this concert, I might have paired the Sibelius and Vasks with Dag Wirén's Serenade for Strings or something wistful by Grieg. But that might have been too much dry Northernness for one evening. SCCO instead closed with the cheerful Op. 22 Serenade by Dvořák. This could have used a bit more rehearsal in places. Yet the quick tempos contributed to a charming, bouncy performance with a wonderful touch of coyness at the ends of the movements.

Only 50 or 60 audience members came to this concert. A few I talked with at intermission proved to be relatives of the performers. What a shame. This orchestra is far too good to be heard only by its relatives. Later performances this season will include works by Giya Kancheli, another noted Eastern European postmystic, and the irrepressible Argentinian Astor Piazzolla. I am marking my calendar.

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