St. Matthew's Lutheran Church was nearly full for Sunday's opening concert of the dependable Intermezzi series. Conductor Pierre Vallet led members of the Spoleto Festival Orchestra in an absolutely ravishing program of French and German classics for small orchestra — including a fascinating rarity.
The concert began peacefully, with a fairly familiar short piece by Frenchman Gabriel Fauré: his serene and bittersweet Pavane in F-sharp Minor. The pavane is a fairly slow processional dance of Spanish origin that was practiced in Renaissance-era courts across southern Europe and England, but it survives only in musical form. This example is one of Fauré's signature works, typical of his generally gentle and lyrical approach to music. The opening flute melody — supported by soft and gently lilting dance-rhythms from the orchestra — brought smiles to most faces in the crowd; you could almost hear their collective sigh. Vallet and company made an utterly beautiful thing of it.
I can't understand why the consistently well-crafted and engaging music of Fauré's fellow Frenchman (and contemporary) Albert Roussel has fallen into relative obscurity, especially after hearing the next piece: his vibrant and highly appealing Concerto for Small Orchestra. I've never heard this compact, three-movement gem before, but now I'll be on the prowl for a good recording of it. But no matter who plays it, I can hardly imagine any performance I can find being better than this one.
You can describe this music as a modern concerto grosso: the Baroque-era precursor of the modern concerto. From beginning to end, assorted individual players from all sections of the band (plus duos and other small sub-ensembles), darted in and out of the orchestral textures in concertante style, delivering mostly fleeting solo snippets. The two short and lively outer movements were saucy and frolicsome, framing a longer (and slower) central episode that came across as gauzy and atmospheric, with an air of mystery to it. The chugging and propulsive finale had energy to burn. Since the SFO is (in the words of Maestro Emmanuel Villaume) an "orchestra of virtuosos," it was no surprise that all of the solo passages were executed perfectly, with both feeling and flair. And you could tell that they were having a ball with it.
The program's final and most substantial work was the great Ludwig van Beethoven's marvelous Symphony No. 4, a work that's long been overshadowed by the master's weightier symphonies: like his third, fifth, seventh, or ninth. Yet his fellow composers have long praised this one as being a finely-chiseled, glittering mini-masterpiece that deserves a lot more attention than it gets. It may be hard for some of you to imagine this kind of sparkling wit and humor coming from a composer we usually think of as a crusty old curmudgeon, but Beethoven actually loved playing musical jokes (he did likewise in his later Symphony No. 8, which we'll be hearing from the SFO later in the festival).
And this symphony begins with just such a joke: a glowering and ominous slow passage that shifts on a dime into an incredibly joyous musical tumble that — in the SFO's capable hands — positively crackled with energy and rollicking good spirits. The second movement is a paragon of dreamy, highly lyrical musical contentment, and the SFO's players delivered it with smooth, burnished sound and particularly exquisite phrasing. Beethoven saved his best jokes for the following Menuetto episode: a propulsive game of musical tag that's full of sudden surprises. That happy mood continued with the scurrying and intermittently explosive finale. Vallet and company caught the sudden contrasts between soft and loud perfectly. This is really fast music, and Vallet kept a well-nigh perfect tempo going. Fast enough to capture the music's effervescent essence and keep its headlong drive going, without pushing the limits of his players (which is hard to do when you're talking SFO).
It was a wonderful way to end my musical day: I drove home afterwards with a dancing soul and a huge smile on my face. Bravo, bravissimo to Maestro and musicians alike.