John Frayne: Sinfonia's plucky string show quite enjoyable

John Frayne: Sinfonia's plucky string show quite enjoyable

The Sinfonia da Camera, conducted by Ian Hobson and guest conductor Csaba Erdélyi, offered on Nov. 17 a program entitled "Simply Strings," although the music was not very simple, and the Double Concerto by Gordon Jacob showcased the skills of wind players J. David Harris, clarinet, and Ronald Romm, trumpet. On the first half of the program, edgier and more cragged pieces by Béla Bartók and Jacob were performed, while the second-half selections by Samuel Barber and Antonin Dvorak highlighted the silken beauty of the stringed instruments, proving that "Music hath charms to soothe a savage breast" (William Congreve, "The Mourning Bride," 1697).

Bartók's 1939 Divertimento for String Orchestra, Sz. 113, written for that great supporter of contemporary music, Paul Sacher, director of the Basle Chamber Orchestra, marked a mellowing of Bartok's style as he moved away from the cutting-edge modernism of his music of the 1920s and early 1930s. Erdélyi and the Sinfonia strings brought out the attractive clashes of rhythm and phrases of this music, and the Hungarian folk flavor of the finale was particularly delightful. Michael Barta, guest concertmaster, shone in his violin solo.

Jacob's 1975 Double Concerto for Clarinet and Trumpet is a pleasant work that within modest limits offers the solo instruments a chance to display virtuosity in the development of attractive melodies. The clarinet and the trumpet made an "odd couple." Surely the trumpet can outshout the clarinet, so it was interesting to hear Harris' clarinet replying with suave and insinuating grace to Romm's clarion calls from his trumpet. Certain passages of the orchestral parts remind us that it was originally written for wind band. The high-spirited finale offered many chances for Harris and Romm to clear with ease the high hurdles that Jacob had raised for the soloists, and the piece ended with a humorous squall, which elicited strong applause for Harris and Romm.

The second half of the concert began with Barber's "Adagio for Strings," an arrangement of the second movement of his 1936 String Quartet. Hobson led the Sinfonia strings in a powerful reading of a work so direct in its impact that one seems unaware of how it is done, like a wave of the sea. This Adagio also carries so many associations from times it has been used in occasions of national mourning, such as after the death of John F. Kennedy in 1963.

Dvorak's Serenade for Strings in E Major, Op. 22 has a wonderfully beautiful beginning, challenging the opening bars of Peter Tchaikovsky's similar Serenade. But all is not serene loveliness in this Dvorak work. There are flashes of Dvorak's sense of humor, and abrupt wake-up, clashing chords. Hobson and the Sinfonia turned in a delightful reading of this richly flavored work, and the applause was very strong at the end. This led to Hobson addressing the audience. The notice of this concert in the Krannert seasonal brochure had listed Dag Wirén's Serenade for Strings as a program opener, but this piece had been dropped at a later stage. So, as encore, the Sinfonia strings played the jolly fourth movement, "March" of that Serenade. It is one of Wirén's most inspired moments, and it served as a perfect ending to a fine concert.

When I arrived at this concert, a group of students from the Illinois Chamber Music Academy, which is directed by Aaron Jacobs, the Principal Second Violinist of the Sinfona, was about to start a performance of Wolfgang Mozart's Serenade, "A Little Night Music" in the Krannert lobby. Playing with youthful enthusiasm were Jenna Lee and Tamara Asire, violins, Oliver Taylor, viola, John Bae, cello, and Rebecca Owen, bass. Their playing served as a charming introduction to an evening of stringed music.

At 7:30 p.m. Sunday, the Sinfonia da Camera will be joined by the UIUC Oratorio Society in a program of Christmas music, with music by Gerald Finzi, Ralph Vaughan Williams, and selections from Johann Sebastian Bach's "Christmas Oratorio."

John Frayne hosts "Classics of the Phonograph" on Saturdays at WILL-FM and, in retirement, teaches at the UI. Reach him at

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