Review: ISO with all strings attached 

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click to enlarge ISO concertmaster Zach de Pue
  • ISO concertmaster Zach de Pue

A symphony program featuring eight works instead of three or four is unusual enough. But when the selections are (mostly) for all strings and are led by the concertmaster instead of a podium conductor, we have the makings of a unique concert. Long in preparation, Zach de Pue stated in the Friday pre-concert Words on Music that this program was two years from conception to realization.

An audience enlarged by a plethora of visiting grade-school kids showed great enthusiasm from start to finish: i.e. from "Reyja" from the adapted sci-fi film Solaris, lasting a few minutes, by Ben Frost (b. 1980) and Daniel Bjarnason (b. 1979) to the Finale from Tchaikovsky's Souvenir de Florence (1892), all works were vigorously applauded.

To exemplify de Pue's sought-after contrasts, his second offering was the first movement of Schubert's "Death and the Maiden" string quartet in the familiar arrangement for string orchestra by Gustav Mahler. This was followed by the "played-as-written" Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 in G of Bach--three violins, three violas, three cellos, one double bass and a harpsichord, the latter played by Martin Ellis. Ellis nicely interpolated a harpsichord solo between Bach's two movements which Bach had linked only by a "Phrygian cadence."

Next came the highlight of the program, de Pue soloing and leading his strings in Tomaso Antonio Vitali's (1663-1745) Chaconne in G Minor, as orchestrated by Ottorino Respighi (1879-1936). Respighi also added an organ, chiefly its pedal points for low, resonant bass, which Martin Ellis supplied for us on the ISO's Wurlitzer theater organ. Respighi added a few modernisms to a line whose repeated variations became hypnotically beautiful as they progressed. This piece should have ended the program.

Michael Colina's (b. 1948) very short, energetic Nesting Dolls (2006) followed the break--after which came the longer, equally rousing Orawa (1986) by Polish composer Wojciech Kilar (b. 1932). Filled with minimalistic writing in discrete sections, it successfully -- and accessibly -- draws on Kilar's film composing background.

To continue where he left off before intermission, de Pue and his strings returned to Schubert's "Death and the Maiden," this time the second movement, also as arranged by Mahler, a set of variations on the composer's earlier song of that name. In this movement especially, the "choir" effect of all those strings both added to and detracted from Schubert's original string quartet.

The Tchaikovsky Souvenir de Florence finale proved disappointing -- not in its playing but in the music itself. With a motive repeated to death, this last Tchaikovsky chamber work -- originally written for string sextet--fails to show the composer at near his best. Still, de Pue and his string players deserved the hearty applause; their careful preparation was evident throughout the program. May 16-17; Hilbert Circle Theatre

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