Recap: Grand Rapids Symphony's intimate chamber music is superb in St. Cecilia Music Center

By Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk -

Forty-five musicians in all were on stage, never more than 27 at a time, but it hardly mattered.

No soloist was in front of the Grand Rapids Symphony on Friday evening at St. Cecilia Music Center, though no one noticed.

It was an uncommon concert, a little more chamber music, a little less orchestral, but the result was magnificent just the same under Music Director Marcelo Lehninger.

Grand Rapids Symphony returned the elegant splendor of Royce Auditorium for The Romantic Concert: Dvořák & Tchaikovsky on Friday, Jan. 5, the second concert of the 2017-18 Crowe Horwath Great Eras series.

The Grand Rapids Symphony itself was the star of the show with music includingTchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings, Dvořák’s Serenade for Wind Instruments, and a Brass Sextet in E-flat minor by Oskar Böhme.

It was a bonus that the music was composed in the era in which its surroundings were built. St. Cecilia Music Center opened its doors at 24 Ransom Ave. NE in 1894.

The power of a full-size symphony orchestra in a large concert hall, playing as one instrument, is a wonder to behold. But that sonic experience is built upon the work of 70 or 80 master musicians, playing at the highest level, contributing the mastery of their craft to the great whole.

On Friday, Lehninger peeled away at the onion to reveal those layers in three separate pieces of music that focused the spotlight on three portions of the orchestra. The results were breathtaking and delightful.

Tchaikovsky, who loved the music of Mozart above all other composers, paid homage to the German composer in his delightful Serenade for Strings, composed in 1881, two years before St. Cecilia Music Society was founded.

The Russian composer was fond of the Serenade, regarding it as one of his finest works, one that he composed from inner conviction. Lehninger honored the music appropriately

With just 27 string players at his disposal, Lehninger nonetheless filled the hall with free-flowing sound from the lyricism of the outer movements, a particular joy when elements of the opening movement returned at the end. The orchestra contributed both precision and elegance with fast moving passages that were played boldly and rendered beautifully.

Lehninger rendered the harmonic shifts in the waltz with loving care. The finale is brilliantly composed, and Lehninger made sure it was brilliantly played.

Dvorak also wrote a Serenade for Strings. This one for winds is lesser known but it also has its charms.

Just 12 musicians were on stage for Dvorak’s Serenade for Wind Instruments – two oboes, two clarinets, three bassoons, three French horns, plus one cello and one bass. No flutes, but plenty of lower-voiced instruments were just the ticket for the serenade in a minor key, at least at its outset.

The cheeky opening march was filled with good humor. The folk melodies were rollicking. The pastoral third movement was bucolic. The finale was playful. Lehninger gave the piece plenty of attention, and it shows.

A mere six musicians performed the Sextet for Brass by Böhme, a little-known composer who flourished in the early 20th century. The six included principal trumpet Charley Lea playing cornet, a slightly mellower version of the trumpet that’s rarely heard in the orchestra hall. Though just six musicians are featured, the music nevertheless was dramatic, exciting and colorful.

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at 9:00 AM

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