The Saginaw Bay Symphony Orchestra's season-long tribute to Music Director Leo Najar began Saturday night with a fine program of rarely heard music at Saginaw's First Presbyterian Church.
The evening's guest artists were SBSO Principal Violist Catherine Franklin and Najar himself playing second viola, in Bach's Brandenburg Concerto no. 6. Najar paired the duo with the very most minimal accompaniment, three celli, bass, and continuo keyboard, but even this flexible ensemble couldn't rescue what was a rather stodgy reading.
In this conductorless performance, the tempi in the two outside movements seemed consistently too slow, and the tuning and articulation often seemed suspect. In the middle movement, Najar led with a sweet and endearingly intoned solo, and Franklin answered in kind but with a darker and more somber timbre. In the finale, the tutti sections seemed more together, but the antiphonal and polyphonic sections were weak. It was a good effort, but not one of the orchestra's finer moments.
In contrast to the Bach, next came an extraordinary performance of Alberto Ginastera's Variaciones Concertantes, the first of two North American premieres by the SBSO on the program. The Variaciones is perhaps not one of Ginastera's masterpieces, nevertheless under Najar's baton it proved itself to be a wonderfully conceived and complex work deserving of many hearings from orchestras with strong section leaders such as the SBSO.
This performance was indicative of what this area will be missing when Leo Najar leaves at the end of this season.
Case in point was at the end of cellist Irina Tikhonova's lovely intoning of the work's theme, which dies into an arresting nothing out of which Najar seamlessly and gorgeously brought up the full strings for the second movement. This performance worked, not only because of Najar's exactingly crafted reading and lyrical musicianship, but also because of the superb solo work done by a large group of orchestra principals.
The writing of this work is extremely exposed, and the orchestra got superb solos from flute, clarinet, viola, oboe and bassoon (in an inventive canon), trumpet, trombone, violin, horn, and double bass. The ensemble's playing was equally strong, featuring beautifully shifting timbres with different combinations of winds in the tenth movement, and a finale that blazed to a glorious conclusion.
After intermission, Najar returned with the second of the night's North American premieres, a delightful example of Astor Piazzolla's hugely popular style of "Nuevo Tango," called Sinfonietta 1953. The insouciant dance flavor for which the composer is so deservedly famous was particularly evident in the first movement, and the orchestra responded with a fluid and energetic reading. The pensive, somber, rather brooding second movement gave way to the highly charged finale, a whirlwind of subdued, pent-up energy.
Mood was clearly important to Piazzolla when he penned this work, after all the names of the movements are Dramatico, Sombrio, and Jubiloso. Najar and the orchestra showed their ability to deliver those moods and the idiomatic rhythms which audiences enjoy so much with clarity and style.
The program's final work was Bartok's Divertimento for Strings, a wonderfully complex piece which tests the best of string ensembles. Najar has fashioned a nicely homogeneous string section, well blended and disciplined. In this piece, either you've got it, or it's extremely obvious that you don't. Even though they lost focus in a few sections of the first movement, generally Najar and the SBSO strings navigated the first movement's devilishly tricky rhythms well.
In the second movement, just as the quiet opening fused into a dynamically punctuated dramatic section, the rains and wind arrived outdoors. Thanks to some open windows in the church, the sounds blended with that of the strings almost like an off stage obligato. Najar and the strings ended the concert with the playful, ironic, and frenetic third movement to great audience affection. The general rule is that modern audiences won't tolerate this much 20 th century music on one program.
But with a conductor like Najar, in a place like the Saginaw Bay Symphony, where "it's always been about the music," they have a habit of proving it truly is the music that rules.