Monday, March 3, 2014


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

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