Monday, March 31, 2014


Severance Hall
March 28

A packed house onstage and in the audience.

One of hallmarks of Cleveland’s cultural institutions is outreach. Far from the stereotype of refined music or precious art kept high in ivory towers for a privileged few, the doors are thrown open here to the broadest possible audience. One need look no further than Severance Hall for examples like the Cleveland Orchestra’s annual Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration Concert, or the free community concert the orchestra is giving on April 18.

On Friday night, the Cleveland Institute of Music took inclusion a step further by bringing community members on stage with the CIM Orchestra for a rousing performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9. Severance has certainly seen better performances of the piece, but few with as much heart.

Joining the student orchestra were four professional vocalists, student singers from CIM, instrumentalists and singers from Cleveland School of the Arts, the Singer’s Club of Cleveland, and members of the Antioch Baptist Church Sanctuary Choir. That totaled about 260 people packed wall-to-wall on the stage, which looked more like a convention than a concert.

In opening remarks, CIM President Joel Smirnoff noted the diversity of the performers and how it reflected the themes of idealism and brotherhood in Beethoven’s crowning work. “Take a good look around you tonight,” he encouraged an equally jam-packed audience. “Try to savor these moments as our community gathers together to find meaning at the end of a work day in a symphony based on life’s culture, life’s tragedy and life’s joy.”

Before he took the helm at CIM, Smirnoff was a longtime member of the Juilliard String Quartet and an active conductor. He still picks up the baton occasionally, as he did at this concert, ducking into the wings after his speech and then reemerging to lead a sharp, authoritative start on the symphony.

The CIM Orchestra is noted for the professional caliber of its sound and fearlessness in taking on difficult pieces, qualities that were quickly evident. The music had depth and a crisp edge, with some notable bite in the brass. The second movement rolled out like thunder with powerful rhythmic intensity, and the third opened with wonderful silken violins, one of the trademark characteristics of the Cleveland Orchestra sound. By osmosis or design, the student players did a great job emulating it.

A smart dialogue between the horns and low strings opened the fourth movement, followed by the famous theme stated first by the cellos and bass in tones as rich and well-drawn as one would hear from a professional ensemble. As the theme blossomed and the voices joined in, the four soloists added color, though not much in the way of standout vocals. The choral groups were almost staggering in their power, a great burst of sound exploding from the back of the stage that captured the radiant spirit and exuberance of the finale.

Were one to apply strict critical standards to the performance, there would be much to dissect. The playing was wildly uneven, particularly in the woodwinds, which veered from sounding brilliant to nearly falling apart. Big, bold sections fared better than subtleties, and Smirnoff could never get the balance quite right, with the horns sitting on top of the strings for most of the night rather than complementing them. And for all its power and energy, the giant chorus sounded like mush by the end of the performance, a tidal wave of sound without any definition.

But it would be churlish to apply professional criteria to a community celebration, particularly one that so richly embodied the ideas of not just a piece of music, but a seminal work of Western art. The outsized gathering of disparate races, voices and skill levels on a single stage was itself an inspirational statement. That they could all come together in an emotionally rewarding experience for both the players and audience was a measure of how far enthusiasm and noble aspirations can carry a performance.

For more on the CIM Orchestra:


Severance Hall
March 27

Still a favorite with Cleveland audiences.

By the time the concert ended on Thursday night, even the Cleveland Orchestra players were applauding conductor Christoph von Dohnányi. That echoed the warm welcome the Music Director Laureate received at the beginning of the evening from an appreciative hometown audience, whom he rewarded with two Schumann sweets.

More than 10 years after his departure, von Dohnányi still has an ease and familiarity with the orchestra that few can match. This stems not only from his extended tenure in Cleveland (1982 – 2002), but a long career working with first-class orchestras around the world. He has a fine sense of color, texture and balance, which he shifted for the Schumann symphonies, reversing the usual position of the lower strings – violas stage left, and cellos and bass stage right.

Conducting on Thursday without a score, von Dohnányi seemed effortless in his ability to drive the music with flowing rhythms and agile turns of tone and tempo. And he obviously knows the ensemble very well. From the very first bars of the opening Symphony No. 4, the trademark sound of the Cleveland Orchestra was in full flower: warm, lush, richly detailed and sweeping in romantic grandeur.

Opening with No. 4 and ending with No. 2 flopped the symphonies chronologically but made sense programmatically, as the latter is the stronger and more satisfying work. No. 4 is a revision of a piece that flopped when it premiered in 1841, got shelved, then was dusted off and reorchestrated for a more successful performance in 1851, conducted by the composer himself. The symphony was a staple in the Cleveland Orchestra’s repertoire under George Szell, who not surprisingly used his own version of the score. Christoph von Dohnányi has carried on that tradition, last leading the orchestra in a performance of the piece in 2007.

What stood out in Thursday’s performance was its vibrancy, a rhythmic flow and propulsive quality that gave the music a dynamic pulse. Never flashy, it nonetheless brimmed with color, though not much detail – von Dohnányi seemed more interested in grand gestures. These had a wonderful freshness and spontaneity, with a lot of snap in the sound. Otherwise the performance was a bit ragged around the edges, with an unusually anemic showing from the woodwinds. But it finally caught fire with a thrilling statement of the theme in the third movement, then picked up drama with bold statements by the brass and dashed to a crisp close.

Both conductor and players seemed to hit stride in the second half with a markedly better performance of No. 4. The sound was clear and sharp, sparkling in the brighter passages and electric in finishing out movements. The rhythmic flow was a marvel – by midway through the first movement, the orchestra was positively purring. That exuberant quality carried through a lively second movement which gave way to gentle, delicate touches in the Adagio. The finale was captivating, with rich woodwinds underpinning a lustrous, galloping romp.

It’s normal for Severance audiences to stand and applaud after every concert, though rare to see them snapping pictures with cell phones, as they did on Thursday. Beyond the lingering affection for von Dohnányi, that enthusiasm reflected the infectious energy of the performance, even more remarkable in being generated by an 84-year old maestro.

And von Dohnányi is a class act, taking his bows from the floor with the musicians. It took several curtain calls and the musicians staying in their seats for him to step back on the podium for a final burst of applause. Both onstage and in the audience, there was genuine joy at hearing that vibrant energy in the orchestra again.

Photo by Chris Lee/New York Philharmonic

Wednesday, March 19, 2014


Hall Auditorium, Oberlin
March 14

Joshua Blue, center, as an unhappy King of the May.

When Benjamin Britten’s comic opera Albert Herring premiered at Glyndebourne in 1947, the director of the festival reportedly warned the audience, “This isn’t our kind of thing.” The undercurrent of homosexuality in a man being chosen as Queen of the May was too strong, especially with Britten’s partner, tenor Peter Pears, singing the title role.

Fortunately that’s passé now, leaving a brilliant musical work ripe for straight (no pun intended) comic treatment – with satirical swipes directed at the supporting cast, not Albert. Director Jonathon Field ran with that premise in a whipcrack production last week, turning in a professional-caliber performance with Oberlin Conservatory students.

Field approached the opera in the spirit of screwball comedy, the rapid-fire, histrionic style of filmmaking that was popular in Hollywood in the 1930s and ’40s. Characters marched, preened, bantered and cajoled in clockwork precision, starting with the group of British villagers that convene at the home of Lady Billows to decide who will be Queen of the May. Stereotypically stiff and proper, they moved like interlocking parts of a well-oiled machine, establishing caricatures (priggish schoolmarm, huffy police superintendent) with a few deft lines and gestures before flitting into places around a dining table to make unctuous pitches for their candidates.

Marvelous Monroe.
That set up an amusingly pompous entrance by Lady Billows, played on Friday night by Amber Monroe, whose privileged mien and florid indignation delivered in Wagnerian-sized vocals provided amusing reaction shots throughout the entire evening. The snappy put-downs of her maid, sung by Micaëla Aldridge, to each of the proposed names set a brisk tempo and arch tone of comic anticipation.

The pace slowed with the title character’s appearance in the second half of the first act, and Joshua Blue’s one-dimensional portrayal of a depressed mamas boy didn’t help. Daveed Buzaglo’s overly cloying Sid was more distracting than amusing, but Hannah Hagerty as his girlfriend Nancy brought back some sparkle, particularly in their love duet. And when the committee flooded in for a rousing production number announcing Albert as King of the May, the cascade of reactions – Albert aghast, his mother thrilled, Lady Billows dangling the prize purse – set an enticing mixture of farce, satire and whimsy.

Britten’s witty score comes to the fore in the second act, and Field took full advantage of comic set pieces like Miss Wordsworth (Audrey Ballaro-Hagadorn) rehearsing her mischievous choral trio. Even more impressive was the way he had his singers play to the quirks in the music – flashes of color in the woodwinds, sharp cracks of percussion – that add dimension to the characters’ personalities. The score is also notable for its many references, to which Field added a few of his own onstage. Lady Billows had a Scarlett O’Hara moment on the staircase of her home, and it took an invocation of da Vinci’s “The Last Supper” to induce Albert to get up and speak at the banquet celebrating his crowning.

Albert’s disappearance in the third act gave Hagerty a chance to shine in hand-wringing arias, and the full ensemble an opportunity to indulge in some lusty, madcap recriminations after he reappeared. The singing was uniformly strong, without a weak voice in the cast. After Albert downed a spiked drink in the second act and his character opened up, Blue blossomed into a rich, full tenor who dominated the stage by the final curtain. Monroe never failed to get a reaction to her outsized singing and acting, and the committee members crafted amusing character studies.

Much of the credit for the production’s success has to be shared with conductor Christopher Larkin, whose credits include a stint as music director of the New York City Opera touring company. Even for a small orchestra (13 pieces), the sound was remarkably transparent, clear and disciplined without losing the spontaneity that gives Albert Herring its bright spirit and momentum. Violinist Yuri Popowycz deserves special mention for a virtuoso invocation of whistling. And the orchestra’s intermezzos merited an extra round of applause.

King of the May? By the final curtain Friday night, it seemed exactly like our kind of thing.

Photos by John Seyfried


Plymouth Church
March 18

Precision and passion in a two-night marathon.

There was a moment of absolute stillness and then an audible exhalation of breath after the Takács Quartet brought Béla Bartók’s String Quartet No. 6 to a hushed close on Tuesday night. The broken spell reflected not only the hypnotic grip the ensemble had on the piece and their audience, but the conclusion of an intense encounter with the Hungarian composer – all six of his string quartets played over two evenings at Plymouth Church.

The Takács Quartet has a long and deep relationship with the pieces, which they recorded on a 1998 release that Gramophone named the Best Chamber Recording of the year. They presented them in an odd-even pairing – Nos. 1, 3 & 5 on the first night, and 2, 4 & 6 on the second. That grouping balanced the length of the concerts and, more importantly, gave listeners a chance to appreciate the entire arc of Bartók’s musical thinking and development on both nights.

What is most striking hearing the string quartets in that concentration is the revolutionary genius of the composer. The first quartet is a transitional work that employs familiar patterns and techniques even as it reflects new directions in 20th-century music. In the rest, Bartók completely deconstructs the form and rebuilds it according to his own ideas and purposes. Played with the clarity and intelligence that the Takács Quartet brings to the works, they unfold like a dazzling series of revelations, each a new adventure in structure, a fresh blend of flavors and influences, and an emergence of powerful new harmonies.

In the solemn tones of No. 1 on Monday night, the group established its sound, a distinctive admixture of precision and warmth with Old World style and depth. That fit the piece perfectly, as the opening elegy gave way to livelier rhythms and the first flashes of the folk idioms that became an increasing part of Bartók’s work. In No. 3, written nearly 20 years later, they appear as brief squirts of melody and curlicues of color amid slashing violin lines and fiery passages in which all four instruments are going in separate directions. The players seemed psychically linked in their seamless execution and tight, controlled sound.

A fierce start on No. 5 set the tone for a thrilling rendering of the piece, which dissects melodies as quickly as it creates them, and mixes squeals, chattering and other odd noises into a fast-paced blend of folk and classical rhythms. This calls for virtuoso playing skills, but the group was even more impressive in its ability to pull all the disparate elements together into an organic sound, as if one voice were speaking in many intonations and colors.

On Tuesday, a gripping opening movement in No. 2 set up the insistent ostinato in the second movement, which gathered an irresistible momentum but never lost the sound of four distinct instruments. Each was like a separate soul in anguish, driven to a dramatic frenzy that suddenly broke and gave way to the deep melancholy of the third and final movement, in which the waves of anxiety receded and the voices, softer now, became meditative and resigned.

For No. 4, the group opened up a bit, putting a sharper edge on the sound and an electric charge particularly in the opening and closing movements, which mirror one another. The all-pizzicato fourth was a tour de force – who knew plucking the strings could produce so many different sounds? It was also an opportunity to get a close-up look at the “Bartók pizzicato,” which calls for plucking the string so strongly that it snaps against the instrument. The music is too serious for the effect to be humorous, but there was panache in the group’s execution of the technique. And a note of playfulness in the freewheeling snatches of melody in the final movement.

Individual voices were strong in No. 6 – a smooth opening viola solo, the cello dominant in the second movement, then the spectral tones of the third coalescing into a full complement of harsh strokes played tight and fast. The quartet dug deep for the finale, drawing on a well of emotion with an exquisite craftsmanship that left everyone holding their breath.

Is it possible for an ensemble to get better over the course of two nights? Given the caliber of the Takács Quartet, it’s almost absurd to talk about one performance being better than another. Yet along with the music there was a clear sense of development in the playing, which seemed to grow both more studied and more spontaneous as the pieces became more complex. By the end, the ensemble was not so much performing the quartets as inhabiting them, bringing them to impassioned life with a riveting combination of freshness and authority.

For more on the Takács Quartet:

Monday, March 10, 2014


Severance Hall
March 7

A holdover from an era of understated elegance.

Rudolph Buchbinder was his usual brilliant self playing Rachmaninoff on Friday night. But the star of the show was the Cleveland Orchestra’s assistant conductor, Brett Mitchell. Like a pinch-hitter in baseball, Mitchell has to be prepared to step up to the plate every week, though he rarely gets the call. When Franz Welser-Möst phoned in sick on Friday afternoon, it was Mitchell’s time to shine.

Which he did immediately with Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. This is a piece that can become heavy and schmaltzy, and almost always does. The audience fixates on the familiar melody in the 18th variation, and if it gushes, everybody goes home happy. Mitchell took the opposite tack, starting with a light, agile sound that complemented the dramatic piano lines, providing a buoyant backdrop that didn’t get in the way. He stayed just shy of sentimental in the melody, letting it swell but keeping it clean and crisp, never overwhelming the soloist.

Buchbinder is a pro’s pro, a holdover from an era of playing without histrionics. He came out on stage in an open-necked white shirt, de rigueur casual for a Fridays@7 concert, sat arm’s-length from the keyboard and went to work. No fancy flourishes, no body language or banging, just a breathtakingly proficient reading that was both smooth and smart. His piano lines flowed with an easy mastery, riding the music and keeping it in balance, giving the solos color and character, then blending into the orchestral passages to add depth and texture.

What may be most remarkable about Buchbinder is the way he manages to infuse a piece he has obviously played many times with spontaneity, crafting a fresh, sparkling sound – in this case, in tandem with the conductor. Some notes fall by the wayside, but Buchbinder is not interested in a note-perfect performance. He has an artist’s sense of the bigger picture, which he builds in grand strokes and small ones, finely detailed in some sections, broad and sweeping in others, pulling the audience along in a rush of pure musicality.

The abbreviated Friday program offered a brief nod to the Richard Strauss anniversary year, the composer’s 1888 tone poem Don Juan. Mitchell offered a brisk, lively reading, not very deep or emotional, instead polished and bright. It started off a bit thin, but the sound filled out nicely in the later sections of the piece, with the conductor showing fine control of the orchestra. One might have wished for more color from the horns and woodwinds. That, however, is the sort of fine-tuning conductors do in rehearsal, not from the podium in performance.

And a quick follow-up from the other Strauss – Johann Jr. – was effervescent, brimming with gaiety and charm. The waltz From the Mountains sounded anything but clichéd, flush with warm tones, sharp percussion, burnished horns and a champagne brio. The brief pauses, a trademark of Strauss waltzes, were clear and precise, putting a fine edge on the whirling melodies. A closing Czárdás opened with a witty gasp from the violins, then set off on a free-spirited romp, galloping to a snappy finish.

That propelled the audience into the foyer, where the New York Gypsy All-Stars were already playing. It was a bit of a shock, with the last strains of 19th-century Vienna still hanging in the air when they were suddenly steamrolled by modern electric pop. But no one seemed to mind, as the foyer quickly filled and the crowd overflowed up the stairs and onto the mezzanine.

And why not? The band was good. Still, the energy started inside the hall, where a last-minute sub had just hit a home run.

For more on Rudolf Buchbinder:

Photo by Marco Borggreve

Cleveland Orchestra Youth Orchestra

Severance Hall
March 9

He puts a spell on you.

An all-Brett Mitchell weekend at Severance Hall came to a roaring close on Sunday night with fireworks from the Cleveland Orchestra’s junior ensembles, the Youth Orchestra and Youth Chorus. With Franz Welser-Möst indisposed, Mitchell had to conduct the parent orchestra on Friday and Saturday night – in two different programs. The hat trick on Sunday gave him a chance to show what he can do with his own program and players.

The 100-plus members of the Youth Orchestra benefit from regular rehearsals with Mitchell as well as mentoring from their adult counterparts, training that showed up immediately in the opening piece, Beethoven’s overture to Fidelio. It was played with surprising sophistication and authority, pulsing with the rhythms and exuberant energy that characterize an understanding of the material.

That turned out to be only a warm-up for Hindemith’s symphonic version of Mathis der Maler. Adapted from the composer’s eponymous opera, it is a work that would tax any orchestra, offering complex descriptions of and meditations on paintings by Renaissance artist Matthias Grünewald. It also happens to be an ideal student piece, with every section of the orchestra and many individual players required to step forward at some point to carry the melody or fill in the details.

The young players responded with precision and grace, setting electric rhythms and crafting sensitive solos, particularly in the woodwinds. The brass section popped like the power section of a swing band, and the violins positively glistened. Most striking was the orchestra’s clarity. Much of that goes to Mitchell, who knows how to handle a large ensemble and keep the sound clean. But the transparency of the Youth Orchestra was remarkable, on a level that many adult orchestras strive for but never achieve.

If the orchestra was good in the first half of the concert, the chorus was sensational in the second. From the opening bars of John Corigliano’s Fern Hill, a musical treatment of the Dylan Thomas poem, the sound was crisp and responsive, like a well-tuned sports car. The women get the majority of singing time in Fern Hill, and they were warm and radiant, matching the sunny lyricism of the poem. The orchestra provided flowing accompaniment, punctuated by sharp percussion. Toward the end the sound went soft, but the emotional charge in the chorus carried the finale.

Soprano Amanda Russo provided a dusky contrast to the chorus’ bright vocals in two stanzas of Fern Hill and the concluding Drei geistlich Lieder (Three spiritual songs) by Mendelssohn. Even in the relatively simple format of liturgical music, the chorus showed great depth and range. And the effect of soaring young voices was heavenly. There is simply no way an adult chorus can match the innocence and aspiration inherent in a well-trained children’s vocal ensemble.

Could you believe that chorus?” an exhausted but elated Mitchell said backstage afterward. It’s typical of him to shift the spotlight off himself and onto his young performers, but his point was well-taken. The concert never felt like a group of amateurs trying to sound professional. The intelligence and caliber of the playing and singing were high from the opening notes, and rarely sagged.

It was unfortunate that Maestro Welser-Möst was absent over the weekend. Cleveland audiences see little enough of him as it is, and his appearances with fellow Austrian Rudolf Buchbinder should have been one of the highlights of the season.

But no complaints about what got served up instead. From the intricacies of Rachmaninoff to the hymns of Mendelssohn, it was tasty.

For more on Brett Mitchell and the Cleveland Orchestra youth ensembles:

Monday, March 3, 2014


Severance Hall
March 6, 7 & 8

Buchbinder studies scores like they're suspense thrillers.

Even among top-tier classical pianists, Rudolf Buchbinder cuts a distinctive figure.

Long ago the Viennese virtuoso established himself as one of the world’s foremost interpreters of Beethoven, not only because of his superb playing skills, but because he is a scholar who has devoted considerable time to collecting and studying original manuscripts and autograph scores. His studies inform his performances, which are noted for their masterful technique, enthusiasm and generosity of spirit.

At the age of 67, Buchbinder is in demand all over the world. In January he performed in Tokyo, Berlin and London, and later this month will be traveling to Istanbul, Hamburg and Milan. In between he is making a stop at Severance Hall to play with the Cleveland Orchestra for the first time in 15 years. Cleveland audiences will not be hearing Beethoven, however. Buchbinder will be playing one of his favorite works, Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.

Last week the pianist took time out of his busy schedule to talk about the piece from his home in Vienna.

Whose idea was it to have you play Rachmaninoff?

Franz Welser-Möst asked me to play it with him, and I’m delighted. In my opinion, there are three great variation compositions: Bach’s Goldberg Variations, the Diabelli Variations of Beethoven and Rachmaninoff’s Paganini Rhapsody, which is a great, great piece.

How long have you been playing it?

I started on this piece at the age of 14. My teacher said to me, Rudy, my little boy, now you will learn a very great and big, fantastic concerto. I was very excited, of course. But then he said, it’s Rachmaninoff’s Paganini variations. And I was so upset, because I didn’t know the piece at all! I thought he would give me like a Beethoven or Brahms concerto. But the Rachmaninoff was one of his favorite pieces, and since that time, it’s also one of mine.

Rachmaninoff had unusually large hands. Is that what makes his pieces so hard to play?

No, I don’t think you need large hands for piano playing, not even Rachmaninoff. With someone like Brahms, he had his own chords and way of playing, and you have to get used to it. But what Rachmaninoff wrote is very pianistic, in the same way that Franz Liszt composed for pianists. Rachmaninoff also wrote for us.

How do you approach the Paganini Rhapsody?

I try to play it as a big, classic concerto. I don’t care what it’s called, it’s a concerto. And by the way, very difficult to play, lousy difficult.

How long did it take before you felt you had mastered the piece?

Through my whole life, I’ve always tried to study pieces slowly. They should grow in my body, and into my body. Then I can live the piece.

So when you take on a work like the Paganini Rhapsody, it’s a lifelong project?

Absolutely. And every time I return to it, I discover something new.

Is that partly because of the research you do, studying original scores and manuscripts?

Yes, it’s fascinating. I read them like a crime novel, like Agatha Christie. Also very important for me, and I tell all my students this: Before you play a composition by someone, read a book about this person. Learn the history of his time, and become familiar with his life, his family, his loves, his women – everything. Learn a sense of place. Then you can start to study the piece.

Have you performed with Maestro Welser-Möst very much?

Several times, but never this piece. It will be a premiere, the first time we are doing it. So we’ll see how we fight together.

You two share a strong Viennese musical background.

I always say, there’s no place for any compromise in music. Either you fit together, or you shouldn’t play together. If you don’t see the music the same way, it makes no sense. With this concerto, I am looking forward very much to working with him. I’m sure it will be like huge chamber music when we play together.

What are your impressions of the Cleveland Orchestra?

I know it very well, and to me, it’s one of the greatest orchestras. What I love about this orchestra is its perfection, and at the same time the musicianship. You don’t find both in high quality very often.

Do you find much difference between playing with orchestras in Europe and America?

Not any more. The music is so international today – which in some ways is a bit sad, because orchestras are losing more and more of their own personal sound. Of course, Europe has some fantastic orchestras. But as I say, in its combination of perfection and musicianship, Cleveland is for me one of the greatest orchestras.

What do you hope that audiences in Cleveland will get from your performance?

I want to bring my personal interpretation of the Paganini Rhapsody. I hope that people in Cleveland will say, I never heard this piece like that! I want it to be really fresh.

For more on Rudolf Buchbinder:

Photo by Basta


Plymouth Church
March 1

A meticulous conductor and gracious host.

A double dose of Barber is not the usual cure for a case of cabin fever. But it proved to be a bracing tonic at the BlueWater Chamber Orchestra concert on Saturday night, especially with colorful contributions from three effervescent soloists.

Conductor Carlton Woods runs the BlueWater ensemble with fingertip control and the easygoing manner of a talk show host, enthusing about the pieces and cuing the audience on interesting sections and elements in the music. The sound he delivers is light and pleasant, never too deep but competent and often unabashedly emotional.

Which made Barber’s Adagio for Strings (Op. 11) an ideal selection. Its deceptively simple melody and minor-key pathos let Woods set a measured tempo and develop a full, rich sound that nearly gushed at times. The top end was bright, a tendency that ran through the entire program, but in the Adagio it was grounded by a solid bottom. And the lush texture of the strings was captivating.

That turned out to be only a warm-up for Barber’s Capricorn Concerto (Op. 21), the most interesting and well-played piece of the evening. Though it’s structured like a Baroque concerto grosso, the instrumentation and rhythms are distinctly 20th-century, as is the combination of three soloists – in this case, flutist Sean Gabriel, oboe player Martin Neubert and trumpet player Neil Mueller. They represent three characters, whom the players gave distinctive, entertaining voices, exchanging playful banter with each other and the strings.

The ensemble showed good technique in a variety of sounds and effects that nicely framed the solos. Gabriel, Neubert and Mueller were sharp in their interplay with the orchestra and smooth in tonal harmonies, creating vivid colors as a trio or in combinations of two, especially the flute and trumpet. There was a bit of an edge to the high strings, but otherwise Woods put a professional polish on the sound, carefully balancing the soloists and the ensemble while keeping everything moving at a brisk, engaging pace.

The evening got off to a shaky start with Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro for String Quartet and Strings (Op. 47). The drama promised in the opening lines proved to be underwhelming, and while individual players had some gorgeous moments, the overall sound was uneven, full-blooded at times, squishy at others. Woods showed a graceful feel for the piece, but couldn’t quite pull it together.

Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings (Op. 48), which closed the concert. seemed more his style. “Get up in the aisles and dance” Woods urged the audience, then provided appropriate music, spinning out whirling waltzes and lively variations on folk tunes. The sound was thin in spots but the romantic sweep of the music was irresistible, especially in the pulsing rhythms of the finale.

Above and beyond the music, presentation counts, and in that respect the BlueWater ensemble is a class act. Woods wears tails and the players are dressed in formal black, like a symphony orchestra. The music is accessible and the performances are audience-friendly, especially at Plymouth Church, a welcoming facility with outstanding acoustics. On Saturday, it felt like a group of friends and neighbors had gathered around the musical hearth to enjoy a cozy respite from the winter blues.

For more on the BlueWater Chamber Orchestra:

Photo by Ken Blaze