The Saginaw Bay Orchestra's first concert of 2001 in Bay City's First Presbyterian Church Saturday night featured a pared down version of the orchestra using some of the group's finest players in an unusual set of works.
In these so-called Intimate Delights, conductor Leo Najar pares the ensemble down to chamber orchestra size (there were no more than 23 musicians on stage at any time Saturday night), giving them the opportunity to explore a wide range of repertoire that might otherwise never be heard. Such was the case here, with three twentieth-century works and a minor Mozart piece (all but one of them rarely performed these days) dusted off, brought out, and showcased in this concert.
In a manner of speaking the concert was "book-ended" by doffs of the musical hat to the 18th century, beginning with a slight Divertimento for Strings written by a youthful Mozart at age 16. While certainly not at the level of genius that his most mature works would command, this impish little piece proved a bubbling, exciting, and energetic delight in the hands of the best string players from the orchestra.
Najar led them through a very precise reading that was high on Classical drama and urgency, interwoven with occasional delicacy and intricacies that were like aural lace. The church's sanctuary, with all of its exposed wood and plaster surfaces, gave their sound just enough of an ambient warmth to blend the voices.
The evening's guest soloist was Peter Soave, a return visitor to the Saginaw Bay Orchestra, a virtuoso on accordion-like instruments the bayan and the bandoneon who (dressed all in black in an open necked shirt) once again provided the audience with a different way of appreciating and defining "classical" music.
The rage among classical music lovers in the 1990s for tango music led straight to Argentinean composer Astor Piazzolla and made him an "instant," albeit posthumous, idol. Himself an accomplished player of the bandoneon, it was not surprising that the sound of this very evocative instrument should end up featured in many of his works, including perhaps his crowning accomplishment for it, the Concerto which featured Soave and the orchestra Saturday night.
From the opening measures, Soave demonstrated a oneness with the exotic Latin (as it turns out, in the broadest sense of the word, given Soave's Italian heritage) colors produced by the bandoneon, most particularly when heard alone, as in the soulfully exotic solo at the beginning of the second movement. Soave flexed high drama into the solo parts of the concerto, navigating seamlessly through its devilishly tricky rhythms, and running the work's gamut from the frenetically evocative back to the sensuously romantic.
It was, however, the small film music encore called Oblivion which most powerfully exposed Soave's ability to produce incredible tonal colors, subtleties of musical expression, and intimacy of emotion.
After intermission, Najar led the orchestra in a reading of the only really "famous" work on the program, Barber's Adagio for Strings. Eschewing the heavy and ponderous approaches some conductors have taken, his reading was full of delicacy, light, and color. As the work built to its achingly moving climax, Najar held back from the temptation to go for the merely loud, somehow maintaining a clarity even while the tension expanded, and then later movingly released in the last few measures.
The concert ended with another nod in the direction of the 18th century with Bloch's Concerto Grosso for Strings, a musical form that lived and died in one generation during that time, but which in Bloch's hands truly had a 20th century birthright. From the stentorian manner of the first movement, reminiscent of the French style overtures of Handel, to the homage to Bach in the final fugue, Najar coaxed an easy, comfortable reading from the SBO strings. Only once, in the final movement, did cohesion of ensemble seem to briefly lapse. Otherwise, the strings sailed with fluid articulation and determined grace through the work's demands and surprises.