United States Elgar, Mozart, and Holloway: Stephanie Gonley (violin), Ofer Falk (viola), English Chamber Orchestra, Mark Laycock (conductor), Perelman Theater, Kimmel Center, Philadelphia, 27.1.2015 (BJ)
Elgar: Serenade for Strings
Mozart: Sinfonia Concertante in E-flat major, K. 364
Holloway: Ode for four winds and strings
Mozart: Symphony No. 29 in A major, K. 201
In an earlier century, I knew and admired Mark Laycock’s work when he was essentially the nerve-center of orchestral music in Princeton: he was the music director for 21 years of what developed under his guidance from small chamber-orchestra proportions into the fully professional Princeton Symphony Orchestra. He himself now lives in Berlin and enjoys an active career on a variety of international stages, as well as composing and writing poetry.
It was a pleasure to encounter him again in this English Chamber Orchestra concert. The occasion was a benefit for Musicopia, an organization that promotes the cause of music education in Philadelphia and the five surrounding counties, and the program book also paid tribute to William H. Scheide, the notable Princeton patron of the arts who died in November at the age of 100.
Divided between two Mozart masterpieces and a pair of English works from the 20th century, the program opened with a graceful and rich-toned performance of Elgar’s Serenade for Strings. The other English piece was the Ode for four winds and strings that Robin Holloway wrote in 1980 as a tribute to tenor Peter Pears’s 70th birthday. Holloway is one of the most gifted and imaginative composers now working in England.
I don’t think the Ode can be ranked with his best music, which includes such works as a series of powerful orchestral concertos, a fine Horn Concerto, and a variety of compositions inspired by earlier composers, including the orchestral Scenes from Schumann and the remarkable Bach re-composition for two pianos titled Gilded Goldbergs. But if the Ode remains a tad convoluted in gait and texture by comparison with the works just named, it is still potently expressive music, and under Laycock’s leadership the venerable English Chamber Orchestra did it proud, realizing the string parts glowingly, and integrating them skillfully with the contributions of two oboes (one doubling on English horn) and two horns.
The larger of the two Mozart pieces on the program was the Sinfonia Concertante for violin, viola, and orchestra, surely the greatest work the composer had achieved by the time he wrote it in his 24th year. Laycock got things started well, pointing up the distinction between the accented first two chords and the unaccented third one, and the entry of Stephanie Gonley and Ofer Falk with the wide-ranging and eloquent solo parts kept the musical values of the performance at a high level. Ms. Gonley was the more mercurial of the two soloists, her urgency causing her to skate lightly over a note or two now and then, but the combination of her intensity with Falk’s more tranquil mode of expression made for a very effective blend of musical characters.
Both here and in the A-major Mozart symphony that ended the program, there was a wonderful sense of security about the sound of the orchestra, saturated string tone providing a firm environment in which John Anderson’s and Phil Harmer’s oboe could sing to advantage. The horn parts, featuring some taxing high notes in both works, were finely played by Richard Berry and Tom Rumsby; their tone had an agreeable edge suggestive of the sound of natural horns, though I understand they were playing modern instruments.
Laycock never for a moment compromised in the matter of tempo choice-in the finale of the symphony it was obviously going to be impossible for the first violins (with Ms. Gonley back in her usual concertmaster’s chair) to play all their notes at the hurtling pace he set-and yet somehow they managed to, and very convincingly. For this devotee of completeness, moreover, it was a joy to hear a performance that observed second-half repeats in the first and last movements. The conductor was less generous in the Andante and the da capo of the minuet, but it is in the outer movements that the observance of both repeats is most crucial in preserving the music’s typically Mozartean perfection of balance and proportion.