March 2007

Bach in the Forest

March 14, 2007 09:35

There’s a church in the Santa Cruz Mountains (Portola Valley) that has a glass front wall which yields a staggering view of ancient redwoods. You walk into the church and it’s seeing God in a whole new light—in the form of enormous, towering trees, their velvety reddish brown trunks filling the lower half of the scene and up higher, the emerald redwood boughs crowding the scenery, punctuated by bits of blue sky.

It was in this environment last Sunday afternoon that the San Francisco Chamber Orchestra performed, commencing their program with Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 3. Yes, it was as exquisite and ethereal as you might imagine. To make the deal even sweeter: the concert was admission-free.

Isn’t that the greatest? The mission of the SFCO, they say on their website is “to bring the immediacy and intimacy of music for small orchestra and chamber ensemble to audiences of all ages by presenting classical, contemporary, and commissioned works” free of charge—the only professional chamber orchestra of its caliber in the country offering this (700 free concerts given since its inception in 1953).

The Brandenburg Concerto was followed by the world premiere of award-winning composer Kurt Rohde’s brooding viola concerto, “White Boy/Man Invisible,” with Madeline Prager as soloist. After intermission, Axel Strauss performed Bach’s violin concerto No. 2 in E Major, then Stravinsky’s Dumbarton Oaks Concerto concluded the concert.

The highlight of the program for me was, of course, the violin concerto. It was the lure that had prompted me to drive an hour to get there on an otherwise busy Sunday afternoon. And Axel Strauss, winner of the 1998 Naumberg Violin Award and professor of violin at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, didn't disappoint. I’d last seen him performing the Brahms Violin Concerto with the Marin Symphony in the fall of 2005, and I was struck, both then and now, by his flawless intonation, technical precision and compelling stage presence. The tone he pulled from his 1845 Pressenda was clear and sweet, projecting with ease over the background voices, while still acknowledging the orchestra’s presence and importance.

It’s a cliché to say I was transported, but honestly, I was. Just behind the musicians was this spectacular A-framed backdrop of towering redwoods that are several hundred years old. They were around when Bach composed his music—think about it. Furthermore, it was one of those perfect Bay Area Sunday afternoons—warm, sunny, a gentle breeze stirring the trees outside, sending puffs of pine-scented air through the open church. And here’s this world-class ensemble and soloist, the spirit of Bach swirling around, and I had one of those moments of perfect peace where you realize life doesn’t get much better than this.

The SFCO is directed by Ben Simon—violist and former member of several acclaimed quartets, music director of the Palo Alto Chamber Orchestra, and a faculty member at UC Berkeley (following appointments at Stanford and Harvard). He is a lively presenter with an appealing style that helps involve the listener in the music being presented—an excellent spokesman and leader for an ensemble whose goal is to educate and enlighten the next generation of music lovers through outreach programs.

It heartens me to see music of this caliber presented, free to the public, providing hope for the continuation of classical music in the community and our society. The fact that I got to hear an exceptional violin concerto while enjoying the redwoods makes the feeling all the more sweet.

The San Francisco Chamber Orchestra will perform next in April in a theatrical presentation called “The Devil Made Me Do It,” throughout the Bay Area. A May performance of “Crossroads: Music from the African Diaspora” will conclude their season. Check their website out here

Axel Strauss will be performing the Brahms Double Concerto with San Jose’s Symphony Silicon Valley, May 10 through 13, along with colleague and world-class cellist Mark Kosower. Yes, I’ve bought my ticket. Check out Symphony Silicon Valley’s season schedule here

© 2007 Terez Rose

PS: After the concert, high on the wonderful music, I impulsively bought Axel Strauss’s newly released CD, Mendelssohn’s “Song Without Words,” arranged for violin and piano by 19th century violinist Friedrich Hermann. An excellent impulse purchase, as it turns out. I love Mendelssohn, and I’d never seen these songs arranged for violin before. The collection is versatile and well-balanced, ranging from lyrical to invigorating and every flavor in between. (More details here) If you, like myself, enjoy combining two CDs into a longer playlist for your computer or iPod, this collection pairs beautifully with Gil and Orly Shaham’s CD of “Dvorák For Two -- Works For Violin and Piano. (Details here) Serve with a dollop of Korngold’s “Much Ado About Nothing” Suite (my favorite is the third movement, “Scene in the Garden”) and you’ve got a heck of a playlist.

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