Some of classical music's most edifying works were composed not for the Technicolor splendor of the modern symphony orchestra, but for the smaller, more intimate sounds of a chamber ensemble.
Exploration of that repertoire can yield immense musical riches, which is why the Annapolis Symphony has designated two concerts in its 1997-1998 season a Chamber Orchestra Series.
The first of those concerts was presented Saturday evening, with a pared-down complement of 15 ASO strings taking the Maryland Hall stage to perform music by J. S. Bach, Elgar, Barber and Respighi under the leadership of conductor Sara Watkins. Formerly the principal oboe of the National Symphony, Watkins has taken up the baton in recent years to critical acclaim on both sides of the Atlantic.
It was a pleasure to watch her in action. She conducts with maximum affection for the music and minimum podium fuss, and her efforts seemed to engage and charm her players. The Third Suite from Respighi's "Ancient Airs and Dances" was spun off with delicacy and a spirited elegance that did justice to the spirit of the Italian baroque that was the composer's inspiration.
String tone in the Elgar "Serenade" was robust and songful, not scrawny in the least. Melodic lines were balanced, with that zippy little viola figure that animates so much of the first movement always within earshot even as the high strings drew attention to more pressing melodic matters.
Sharing top billing with the conductor was her husband, John Shirley-Quirk, the much-recorded British bass-baritone well known to music lovers over the past three decades for his work in the operatic and oratorio repertoires.
Husband and wife collaborated on a generally effective performance of Bach's cantata "Ich habe genug" (I have enough). Their reading was noteworthy for the operatic energy imparted to the work's dramatic commentary on the world-weary soul's longing for eternal repose.
Even in his prime, Shirley-Quirk could be a bit of a wobbler, so there was occasionally vibrato where Bach's 16th notes should have been, but this singer remains a commanding musical presence who knows how to get inside a text and project it with great spiritual truth. He also knows show biz: Bach's pair of recitatives were tossed off with tremendous flair.
Shirley-Quirk was complemented by extraordinary playing from oboist Fatma Daglar, whose phrasing in the outer-movement obligatos went straight to the heart. She is the new ASO principal, apparently temporarily. Here's hoping she stays.
The accompaniment from Watkins was generally good, although she apparently heeds early-music "specialists" who ordain that string figures must swell and diminish in each and every bar. Some feel this adds a touch of baroque authenticity. To me, it sounds like fading radio reception.
But a few desiccated fiddle phrases do not a concert ruin. Saturday's program was an admirable beginning for the season and for a new concert series that has already made a place for itself.
Pub Date: 9/25/97