Sunday, September 15, 2019

concert review: Cambrian Symphony

This local volunteer orchestra is now playing in the Hammer Theatre in downtown San Jose, a drama theatre not entirely suited to being a concert hall. This is the first time I've heard an unamplified orchestra there, and find that the acoustics are painfully bright from the strings in front, and muffled from the winds in back. At least where I was sitting; next time I'll try somewhere else.

I went to hear Rachmaninoff's Symphonic Dances and a suite from Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet, favorite modern works. Crisp and energetic performances, conducted with precision by Scott Krijnen. I got to talk with him afterwards, and asked, "In the slow themes of the Rachmaninoff, was that actually portamento I heard a few times?" He said, "Yes, that was us. We were trying to sound sentimental."

One other gem made an appearance, a piece by Helen Crane (1868-1930), an American composer so obscure she's not in the Grove Dictionary of Women Composers. The program notes say she's in Baker's, but not in the Slonimsky edition I have. Evidently she got played a bit during her lifetime, but mostly in Germany where she studied. This was, so far as anyone can tell, the American premiere of this work, titled Evangeline, Op. 11 (1905). Her scores and papers, donated to the NYPL after her death (she'd lived in Westchester), were noticed recently by a composer named Bernard Crane, who was tickled to find another composer with the same surname. (They appear to be very distant relations.) Looking through them, he picked this piece as a likely performance prospect and it wound up here.

Helen Crane dubbed Evangeline a concert overture, and it's typical of the breed: 12 minutes long, in sonata-allegro form. But it's not rigidly or textbook so. I found it fairly imaginative - a sequence of varying rhythmic figures at the retransition especially so - with a strong but not indulgent melodic sense and entirely accomplished orchestration. The idiom floated somewhere between Mendelssohn and Raff, which may seem antiquated for the period, but in fact a lot of lesser composers (MacCunn, Yamada, etc.) were still writing in that style. It wasn't an overwhelming discovery, but it was pleasant, and I'd like to hear more of her music. She wrote piano pieces, songs, chamber music (including 3 string quartets), a few suites and tone poems, a couple vocal-orchestral works, and two completed symphonies.

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