Judging from Maestro Harvey Felder’s remarks during the Tacoma Symphony‘s "Behind the Stands" concert Friday night, Tacoma must be full of people very frightened of chamber music.
It’s an odd assumption, considering Tacoma has a chamber orchestra, chamber music series, and numerous individual chamber groups playing the town. But Felder was talking to his symphony audience, who were filling the seats at the Tacoma Art Museum for an unusual start to the TSO season: a season preview concert of (shock, horror) chamber music.
As it turned out, his remarks weren’t necessary.
Eleven of the orchestra’s principal players took turns playing different combinations of instruments, playing with professional skill and totally non-frightening repertoire. The only thing lacking was some verve.
Oboist Selina Greso was first to shine in Mozart’s Oboe Quartet K. 370 (movt. 1.) Her sweet, if not penetrating, tone soared over strings who tiptoed lightly through the score, missing some opportunities for dynamic guts in the mostly cheerful music. More winds followed in Taffanel’s Quintet for Winds in G minor: excellent intonation and blending, though a slightly sluggish tempo and, again, zero drama.
With Tchaikovsky’s string sextet "Souvenir de Florence," the mood picked up. This shimmering sleigh ride of a piece featured shining violin solos by concertmaster Svend Ronning, and tight and agile ensemble work in the fugue sections. The only difficulty was, as with many concerts here, the soaring, glass-walled lobby at TAM: a lot of sound is lost between podium and seats, and one is constantly wishing for more, especially in strings.
After intermission, Felder took over the easy, conversational introductions from the musicians and opened up a Q-and-A for the audience before conducting Schubert’s Octet in F major. Just why eight people need a conductor is unclear, and though Felder took the musicians through this joyful, rollicking piece with well-crafted style and assurance, there wasn’t a lot of the spontaneity you need with chamber music.
Finally, after Felder’s interminable introduction to Britten’s 1931 "Sinfonietta" (which he obviously thought his audience needed, it being one of the most recent works the TSO has performed lately,) the piece revealed some of the great solo playing the TSO is capable of. An exquisite duo between violinists Ronning and Sara Hancock, fluid flute from Mary Jensen and Greso’s rich oboe, then spunky viola from Thane Lewis in the final tarantella.
As the ensemble expanded, so did their confidence and sound. The thing about chamber music is that to achieve the same level of dramatic excitement as an orchestra, each musician has to work hard. Which is why it’s actually good for orchestras to learn to play this repertoire together—the problem comes when, despite beautiful playing, the extra work isn’t quite there.
Yet a pleasant enough evening was had by all. No-one seemed afraid of the chamber music, or—for that matter—the Britten. Maybe this will give the TSO confidence to leap into the 21st century. After all, where else than in classical music will something from the 1930’s be called, in Harvey Felder’s words, "modern"?
The Tacoma Symphony Orchestra opens its season with "A Night in Old Russia," 7:30 p.m. Oct. 25. 253-272-7264, www.tacomasymphony.org.