It was like glorious old times for the Saginaw Bay Orchestra Saturday night, at its chamber orchestra concert "Intimate Delights" at First Presbyterian Church. The concert was another in a series of chamber orchestra performances which conductor Leo Najar has done periodically, and in different settings, almost always to great audience delight.
On stage Saturday night was a string orchestra comprising 25 of the orchestra's finest string players, who gave an exceptionally fine reading of some diverse and quite pleasing works, from a repertoire ignored by most full-size orchestras. A large part of that untapped repertoire resource is the ever popular music of the Baroque period, represented Saturday night by works by Purcell and Handel.
The concert began with a suite of dance movements from Purcell's The Fairy Queen, one of the young composer's (he died at age 36) most famous scores. It is from this "pre-opera" that come "Let the fifes and the clarions," "Come, all ye songsters," "Thrice happy lovers," "Hark! the echoing air," and, perhaps most beloved of all, "One charming night." Najar took a leisurely pace through the Prelude, allowing the audience to absorb the warm rich string sound brought about by the large cavernous shape of the sanctuary and the abundance of hard reflective wood and plaster surfaces throughout. The orchestra breezed through the five dances which followed, with careful attention to the dotted rhythms of the Rondeau, to the angular movement of the sailor's dance Hornpipe, and to exacting, biting codas throughout.
Najar situated Handel, the German-born "English" composer renowned throughout Europe as both composer and performer, between two of that country's greatest native son composers, Purcell and Britten. It was for himself as virtuoso that Handel wrote his two series of organ concerti, and one of the region's premier organists, Steven Egler, joined Najar and the orchestra in a marvelous performance of one of these works.
Egler's clear, precise playing was strict on meter and tempo, but nevertheless seemed often to produce a sense of playfulness, even exuberance, from the score. He never let his considerable skill overpower the delicacy of the writing. Egler set bright registrations, and gave beautifully exacting attention to ornamentation, both very appropriate for this 18 th century work and for the size of the orchestra with which he was performing.
The program notes (while not infallible; they gave the composition date of The Fairy Queen as 124 years prior to Purcell's birth) went to great pains to note the relatively minor part the orchestra plays in Handel's organ concerti, but when called up, the SBO strings delivered incisive and insightful readings of the tuneful and harmonically interesting orchestral "connective tissue" they were given.
On either side of the intermission came two works written by famous composers associated with their teen years. At the end of the first half came Britten's quirky "Simple Symphony," which received perhaps the best performance of the evening. In this piece, the 21-year-old Britten re-worked themes he had written between 10 and 13 years of age, incorporating both youthful exuberance and a more mature compositional style.
Najar's affection for the romantic and endearing nature of the score was clear, and his gift for the dramatic and elegant moment was evident in the way he would find the ends of phrases, pull back or slow down the forward motion of the musical line, and let the silences speak as clearly as the notes. The strings played precise pizzicato in the second movement, but it was in the tender, elegiac sarabande that the SBO's subtle and often whisper-like playing took on a poetic flavor of a dream that swims through your soul like a pleasant memory.
After intermission, Najar conducted the ensemble in the last of Mendelssohn's so-called String Symphonies, number 9 in C, written when the prodigy composer was about 14 years old. These works have been eclipsed in the public's tastes by three of Mendelssohn's five full-orchestra symphonies, but Najar and the SBO found much to celebrate in this 27-minute work, including a solo by concertmaster David Updegraff, and flashes of lyrical genius in light melodies and early Romantic harmonies.
The standing ovation from the small but enthusiastic audience was ample evidence of the intimate delights afforded by this wonderful orchestra and conductor.