Having braved rain, intense winds, and a power outage that left the first half hour of the projected concert in the dark, a modest but extremely gratified audience heard a fine, balanced program by Master Sinfonia Chamber Orchestra at the Los Altos United Methodist Church, Sunday, February 8. The finely honed ensemble performed music by Respighi, Weber, and Haydn, as led by two conductors, Pamela Martin and David Ramanadoff, with guest bassoon virtuoso Stephen Paulson’s lending his exceptional talent to the solo part in Weber’s witty Andante and Hungarian Rondo.
With some light restored by nature, the concert condensed into its three musical offerings without intermission. Pamela Martin led a buoyant, eminently charming rendition of Respighi’s “homage” to 17th Century dance forms, Gli Uccelli (“The Birds,” 1933), a five-movement suite that well serves the string and wind choirs of the orchestra. Respighi remains a gifted colorist, a “connoisseur” of musical styles in the manner of Richard Strauss, but whose temperament tends to prefer surface effects and depictions of localities, in much the same spirit as Frederick Delius. Martin led her ensemble with a light hand, rather literalist in approach, but perhaps aligning The Nightingale movement with some of the harmonic motions from Wagner’s Forest Murmurs. Both lyrically and articulately adept, the strings, horns, and winds provided the requisite pecks, coos, and sequences that evoke doves, hens, and cuckoos, the flute, oboe, and harp in particularly good form.
A charming divertissement like much of the concerted solo pieces by Carl Maria von Weber, the two-part Andante and Hungarian Rondo, Op. 35 (1813) displays the composer’s bravura sense of national colors; in this case we have a resetting of a piece originally for viola and orchestra. A contemporary bassoon virtuoso, Brandt of Prague, inspired the rescoring, and the effect, if Paulson’s playing left any doubt, has a lovely, often cantabile quality assigned to the otherwise grumpy, rustic instrument that it achieves rarely. Brilliance and theatricality replace formal design in what Weber termed his “celebration of the irrational,” his clear credo for Romanticism. The opening of the Andante in siciliano motion has the principals engaged in a theme with three variations that range from melodically sinuous to potently martial. For his “Hungarian” melos, Weber embraces Romani or gypsy style, similar to the ploy of Liszt. The affect means to achieve emotional freedom and exultation, and Paulson’s jaunty excursions, accompanied by an active tympani from Nobu Tanaka, accomplished a thrilling peroration that raised the roof.
The concluding work, Haydn’s 1792 Symphony No. 98 in B-flat Major, revealed its dual nature, as both a glorious display piece for a London audience and a lamentation for the passing of music’s most eternal gift, Wolfgang Mozart. Beethoven must have known this work fondly, imitating its darkly foreboding opening and its later explosion into levity in his own Fourth Symphony. The first movement Adagio – Allegro remains singularly wrought of one piece, the Allegro’s emerging from the opening in the minor key at reduced tempo. The heart of the work lies in its Adagio, a dirge or “requiem” for the fallen Mozart that alludes at once to “God Save the Queen” and fragments of the Mozart “Jupiter” Symphony. Ramanadoff infused this elastic hymn with great and solemn dignity, imparting a sense of an elongated concert aria to the proceeding. The Menuet did return to Haydn’s bucolic, peasant sense of the dance, with a somewhat reflective Trio section. The final movement, rife with a comfortable swagger and any number of metric and harmonic surprises, indulged the flute (Kathryn Barnard) and tympani in clever and compelling figurations. Prior to the ultimate coda, Haydn inserts some harpsichord arpeggios likely meant for his own premier with this ambitious piece as a personal reminder of his deep attachment to the departed musician who had yet to make a lasting mark on London and world audiences.