Last Sunday, Swarthore’s resident ensemble, Orchestra 2001, presented another eclectic collection of 20th and 21st century music. As usual, there was a theme: all the pieces or their musicians had some connection to Romania.
The highlight of the evening was undoubtedly the American composer Jon Deak’s “Lucy and the Count,” subtitled “Lovedreams from Transylvania.” Imagine a more loosely structured version of “Peter and the Wolf,” replace the fairy tale with Bram Stoker’s “Dracula,” the orchestra with a string quartet with solo contrabass (performed by the composer), and you might have an idea of what it sounded like. Deak’s exciting, occasionally hilarious, and evocative music was narrated by the composer in suitable high Dracula style. The short piece highlighted only three scenes, but kept up a narrative with some descriptive sounds and some nice themes along the way. Deak also offered an encore, an excerpt from “B.B. Wolf (an apologia)” as an encore, a first-person narrative from the Big Bad Wolf himself.
The most musically notable piece on the program was the East Coast premiere (and first major American performance) of the Romanian composer George Enescu’s Chamber Symphony (1954). A tightly constructed and dense work, the work shows the unmistakable influence of Debussy and Ravel, but also of later harmonic innovations and the composer’s Eastern European heritage. The piece is most notable for its extreme concentration: the amount of material could easily sustain a 40-minute work, but here is condensed into a busy 17 minutes. The orchestra navigated the score impressively, with an impressively blended sound in some unusual combinations.
The program also included the world premiere of Liviu Marinescu’s “Ostinato,” for cello and chamber orchestra, here performed by the composer. In his program note, the composer wrote “I have been trying to bridge the gap [between composer and audience.]” Ironically, the piece was by far the most complex and least audience-friendly of the evening, and was the most difficult to follow and enjoy on the first listening. The lanugage was a vaguely Webern-esque one of fragmented phrases and colorful instrumentation.
More engaging was the Philadelphia premiere of Brian Kersher’s “Pastorale and Scherzino,” an accessible and lovely short piece performed by the accomplished (Romanian) violinist Lenuta Ciulei. Bela Bartok’s popular medley, “Rumanian Folk Dances,” here in the chamber orchestra arrangement ended the evening on an exuberant note.
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