An appealingly light-hearted and light-textured program marked the end of the Chamber Orchestra of the South Bay’s main 2016-17 season, though an additional non-subscription concert, with the Poulenc Concerto in G minor for organ, strings and timpani as its highlight, is still to come on May 7. To the three main works in the present concert – Dvořák’s Violin Concerto in A Minor Op.53 B.108 plus two contrasting French suites, Bizet’s Jeux d'enfants and Ravel’s Ma mère l'Oye – Music Director Frances Steiner added the first of Dvořák’s Legends Op. 59 B.122 before the concerto. To my ears it didn’t quite work to have a piece so brief (under four minutes) and gently amiable as a stand-alone opener; a diptych with, say, the more energetic Allegro giusto Op. 59 No. 3 added as contrast would have been more substantial and effective. But about the choice and positioning of the Violin Concerto as the main firsthalf work there was no doubt.
In his pre-concert talk Chuck Klaus outlined the history of the Violin Concerto, a work of the composer’s maturity falling between the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies. Unlike that of many of his works, this was tortuous and protracted. Dvořák wrote a first version in 1879, and sent it to Joseph Joachim, who was slated to give the first performance. The following year Dvořák rewrote it completely, and sent this “new arrangement” once more to Joachim.
The violinist did not respond for over two years, and when he finally did it was to request further changes. Even when these revisions had been agreed between composer and performer, the music advisor to Dvořák’s publisher Simrock requested yet more alterations, some of which – but only some – he acceded to. When the concerto was at last published and premièred, it was by another soloist; indeed, Joachim never performed it in public.
Mr Klaus had noted some particularly difficult features of the solo violin-writing, like its first entry: within a handful of bars there are wide leaps, double-stopping, and rapid arpeggios ending on a high E, but guest soloist Itamar Zorman took them all in his stride, and went on to deliver a sensitive and mellifluous performance of the entire concerto. Particularly easeful was the transition from the first movement to the central Adagio, ma non troppo – “ma non troppo” enough for at least this listener to be jolted into a mental double-take that this was, in fact, where we had arrived… After this, a really ebullient account of the rondo finale made for a joyous sense of release.
Under Ms Steiner, the COSB gave a vivid performance of Bizet’s “Children’s Games,” with some particularly alert and piquant woodwind in the opening Marche – this is a “petite suite” indeed, all five movements over and done with in 12 minutes or so. I had wondered how the almost supernaturally delicate scoring of Ravel’s “Mother Goose” would fare in the unforgiving Norris Theatre acoustic, but in the event it proved more than resilient, with its magic preserved intact.
A seat in the Norris’s steeply sloping balcony gives a useful bird’s-eye view of the orchestra, and this brought to sight aspects of Ravel’s eternally wondrous orchestration that the inattentive ear can sometimes take for granted: the sotto voce growling contra-bassoon “Beast” conversing with “Beauty” in the fourth movement, of course, but also the muted violins (really sensitively played here) at the beginning of “Little Tom Thumb”, the soft tam-tam strokes in “Laideronnette, Empress of the Pagodas”, and the remarkable scoring for solo piccolo in its low register in the same movement.
This being a “gala” concert to mark the end of the season, it concluded not only with a generous reception in the foyer but also, before that, an introduction by Ms Steiner to the five varied and splendidly unhackneyed programs she has planned for the upcoming 2017-18 season. Particular pleasures to be anticipated, for my taste, are the toothsome opening French confection of Delibes, Saint-Saëns (“the” piano concerto – No. 2, as one might have predicted: I would have been even more pleased had it been No. 5!), Fauré and Ravel; Prokofiev’s exquisite Violin Concerto No. 2 in the second concert; two most intriguing arrangements for strings in the third (Weber’s Clarinet Quintet and Mahler’s version of Schubert’s Death and the Maiden quartet); and – for a Brit expat – a very welcome excursion into English music in the fourth concert: Vaughan Williams’ quite rarely performed Concerto for Oboe and Strings and Britten’s Simple Symphony. Roll on October!