Festive Sounds: Master Sinfonia at 50

by Dr. Gary Lemco
Published in Peninsula Reviews, October 20, 2015

The gifted-amateur ensemble, Master Sinfonia, celebrated its 50th anniversary in two concerts, October 17-18, of which the Sunday matinee at the Los Altos United Methodist Church included music by Respighi, Glazunov, and Beethoven, led by the sure hand of conductor David Ramanadoff. Originally established in 1965 by John Mortarotti, the ensemble has provided distinguished music and musicians to the communities of the San Francisco Peninsula. Besides the color intensity of Respighi’s Trittico Botticelliano (1927) and the perennial favorite, Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony (1808), the program enjoyed the violin mastery of Emma Steele in the suavely effective A Minor Violin Concerto of Alexander Glazunov, Op. 82 (1904), a single-movement work whose elastic and vivid expressivity guarantee its place among the pantheon of the great virtuoso showpieces.

The opening work, Ottorino Respighi’s Botticelli Triptych, finds its inspiration in three painting s by Florentine master Sandro Botticelli, each of which hangs in the Galleria della Uffizi in Florence. The composer’s own style, a mixture of Italian liturgy, ancient music, and highly ornamental coloration adapted from his studies with Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, produce limpid melodies and an attractive — if not particularly deep — narrative or landscape pictorialism. Given the concert’s rubric of “celebration,” these three “panels” of music benefitted from Ramanadoff’s penchant for sobriety and clarity of line. Even in the midst of the unleashed primal energies of Botticelli’s La Primavera, the strings enjoyed a felicitous transparency, aided by the poignant oboe (Meave Cox) part. The dark painting, L’Adorazione del Magi, featured a plaintive bassoon part (Amy Duxbury) to convey the solemnity of the occasion and its ultimate mystery of martyrdom. The presence of Gregorian harmony and the hymn tune, Veni, Veni Emmanuel, confirm the sensuous awe of the event. La Nascita di Venere celebrates the birth of Venus, with celeste and harp to augment the interaction of watery motion and eternal Beauty personified. The transcendent radiance of the moment made a dazzling “first impression,” if you will, of a fervent ensemble eager to communicate numinous ardor.

Chicago native Emma Steele graced the eminently lyrical Violin Concerto by Glazunov with her thorough control of elements melodic and bravura, which included her striking cadenza, well indicative of how she might shape a Bach partita. The Glazunov Concerto finds its model in Mendelssohn; and like that composer, Glazunov combines his first two movements without any final cadence; then, he sets up the hunting-style rondo finale as an extension of the second movement. Ramanadoff’s clarinets and bassoons buttressed the lovely colors of the opening movement, expressed in hearty, burnished tones by Steele’s mellow instrument. The main theme and its adornments soared into inter-stellar space, here assisted by harp (Celeste Everson Misfeldt) and French horn (Liane Sharp-Fuccio). The annunciation of the trumpets for the last movement propelled Steele to even more striking effects — double stops, harmonics, rapid shifts of registration — that surrounded the rhythmically compelling last pages with a lustrous momentum that well reminded us that this concerto once belonged to Steele’s fellow violin luminaries, Heifetz, Elman, and Milstein.

The Beethoven Fifth Symphony in C Minor, Op. 67 virtually embodies the idea of victory through struggle. Conceived as a rhythmic unity-in-variation, the music embodies Hegel’s notion of experience as a single gesture or cosmic, “fateful” moment which unfolds itself in diversity and multiplicity. Ramanadoff did not unduly exaggerate the dramatic impulses in the work; rather, he paced and molded the opening movement’s four-note motif as having found its complement in the secondary, lyrical theme. The visceral coda immediately led to the Andante con moto, whose theme and variations evinced some fine homogeneity of tone in the Master Sinfonia cellos and basses. The final two movements, themselves connected by a poignant A-flat pedal over a tympanic ostinato, literally exploded with an affirmation of will into C Major. The progression – which included Ramanadoff’s taking the last movement repeat – enjoyed that transparency of texture even within the white heat of Beethoven’s stretti and whirling figures in (Mannheim) strings and brass. We could well appreciate Beethoven’s having subdued some primary and primordial energies and having converted them into the most concentrated expression of selfhood in music. “The man who freed music” seems an apt epithet for this composer who renews our faith in the power of art to command the moral direction of our lives.


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