Conductor David Ramadanoff led a spectacularly kaleidoscopic afternoon concert with his Master Sinfonia ensemble, Sunday, February 26 at the Los Altos United Methodist Church. Performing music by Prokofiev, Bartok, and Dvorak – touted as musicians of “immigrant” status who brought genius to the world – Ramadanoff brought familiar and relatively rare repertory to a high gloss of execution, featuring violinist Natalie Lin in Bartok’s early (1908) Violin Concerto, conceived as an ardent love-letter to his much-admired Stefi Geyer. The opening Classical Symphony of Prokofiev and the D Minor Seventh Symphony of Dvorak provided alternately witty and lyrically tragic bookends to this distinctive program, whose colors the orchestra made especially vivid.
Ramadanoff opened with Prokofiev’s witty and nostalgic “Classical” Symphony in D Major, Op. 25 (1917), a work conceived amidst the incredible turmoil of WW I and the Russian Revolution. Prokofiev sought refuge in a village near Petrograd, no less seeking the solace of a less chromatic, confrontational musical style than he had invented for his first two piano concertos. Here, the music of Haydn provides a model of clarity and architectural repose, even as Prokofiev’s harmonic and sonorous syntax remains his own. Opening with a resolute Mannheim rocket, the music gravitates from D Major to B Minor to Major, hardly “conventional” modulations. For the first of many such calls to attention, the Master Sinfonia flute players – Kathryn Barnard and Anne Wharton – would command our respect. The secondary tune, marked con eleganza, and played with the tip of the violin bows, parodied a stately court dance. The Larghetto proved Prokofiev’s gift for lyrical gesture, by way of flute and strings, with a middle section colored by bassoon (Noah Court) and pizzicato strings that maintained a pulse in sixteenth notes. The Gavotte would reappear in Romeo and Juliet: here, it clumsily cavorts, 4/4, in leaps and bassoon grace-notes, with a rustic trio in the manner of peasant bagpipes. Ramadanoff and company took the Finale: Molto vivace at full clip, the flutes scampering along in a moto perpetuo, Haydn style, with a few breathers. Once more, rocket figures added to a kaleidoscope of dashing effects, carried off with aplomb and jolly good fun.
The concluding work, Dvorak’s 1884 Symphony No. 7 in D Minor, Op. 70, came as a result of the influence of Johannes Brahms, both as composer of the Third Symphony and as sponsor for Dvorak with the publisher Simrock. Many consider this alternately dramatic and bucolic symphony the greatest expression in the form after Schubert and Schumann, not excluding Brahms himself. Ramadanoff expressed our admiration of Antonin Dvorak succinctly: “he was incapable of writing a bad tune.” There were moments of condensed, powerful emotion – in Beethoven’s own D Minor – and generous, heartfelt repose in Nature, in B-flat Major. Here, the Master Sinfonia woodwinds would many of their most precious effects, as they would again in the Larghetto and secondary theme of the Allegro molto finale. The typical Dvorak capacity for cross-rhythms and motor excitement certainly infused the Scherzo, where duple and triple time compete, and the Master Sinfonia’s Len Sperry voiced his abilities on the tympany. The interplay of clarinet, English horn, French horn, and oboe kept us in thrall in the Larghetto, and the sheer momentum of the last movement virtually erupted into a convulsive Slavonic Dance for the rush to D Major in the finale’s coda, a truly thrilling reading.
For many auditors this afternoon, the “find” of the concert lay in Bartok’s early Violin Concerto (pub. 1956), a two movement, rhapsodic work meant for the beloved eyes and hands of violinist Stefi Geyer, who did not reciprocate Bartok’s infatuation. This concerto marks its two movements Andante sostenuto and Allegro giocoso; but when recast into the Op. 5 Two Portraits (1911), the latter movement became a “Grotesque,” perhaps a mirror of the composer’s self-loathing or a less than “ideal” portrait of a woman’s scorn. Originally, Bartok had inscribed upon the score the words, “My Confession.” Several musical influences suffuse the piece: we hear periodic “layering” (stretto) effects, complements of Reger; a series of blurred or muted harmonies, indebted to Debussy; and potent brass harmonies and dissonant catcalls, likely traceable to Richard Strauss, in his Till Eulenspiegel and Ein Heldenleben. Bartok reveals a mesmerizing capacity for colors in this work – these in addition to the marvelous violin part, expertly intoned by the elegant Nathalie Lin – whose Pedrinelli instrument (1851) sailed into flute stratosphere to express the Platonic heights of the composer’s rapture. In the friss (fast) second section, the character became playful, impish, even pompously heroic, supported by a riff of sixteen strokes on the bass drum. At several points Bartok seemed to end the piece in an apotheosis of violin solo and harps, but he went on and proceeded to a long coda, or epilogue, as rustic as it was “magical.” We must equally compliment conductor Ramadanoff, an alternately intimate or heroic glove suited to Lin’s ardent hand, making plain for us the romantic and extravagant conceits of an artist in love.