incident light

Olmos Ensemble

More zest, less filling

March 25, 2011

Although it’s no substitute for the real thing, a scale model can have charms of its own -- and might even enhance one’s appreciation of the full-sized original.

Consider, for example, Richard Strauss’ tone poem “Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks,” a delicious staple of the large-orchestra repertoire. A fully realized performance requires at least 85 musicians, and 100 would not be amiss. 
An Austrian composer named Franz Hasenöhrl had the temerity to boil the instrumentation down to just  5 players -- three winds, two strings -- and that version was the centerpiece of an outstanding Olmos Ensemble concert March 22 in First Unitarian Universalist Church.

Whatever the reduction lost in opulence, it gained in zest, freshness and clarity. The music, dating from the last decade of the 19th century, sounded more forward-looking than it does in the orchestral version. It helped, of course, that the Olmos Ensemble was able to field a first-class team comprising Ilya Shterenberg (clarinet), Sharon Kuster (bassoon), Jeff Garza (horn), Matthew Zerweck (violin) and Zlatan Redzic (bass), all of whom also play with the San Antonio Symphony. The performance was equal to an international standard all around. Mr. Garza’s brilliance and Mr. Zerweck’s muscular playing were especially winning.

Beethoven’s Septet in E-flat, Op. 20, for winds and strings is not frequently heard nowadays, though the theme from the third of its six movement, a gently lilting menuetto, is familiar from its use in Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 20, op. 49, No. 2. The piece as a whole is good-natured and spring-like, sometimes revealing a wit that recalls Haydn. The starring roles are assigned to the violin (here played with rich tone, elegance and strength by Sayaka Okada) and clarinet (Shterenberg, superb as always). Violist Lauren Magnus, cellist Barbara George,  Mr. Redzic, Mr. Garza and Ms. Kuster completed the excellent ensemble.

The concert opened with “Orpheus Singing,” a 1994 work for oboe and string quartet by the Ukrainian-American composer Virko Baley. The piece is structured like the traditional sequence of recitative, aria and cabaletta from 19th-century Italian opera, but the idiom combines modernist and Ukrainian folkloric elements, which lend an exotic, Orientalist cast. The oboe (Mark Ackerman, playing with lovely tone) opens with a sinuous, somewhat wistful solo introit, and the strings then contribute somewhat dark, sometimes dissonant atmospherics to the  aria that follows. The finale is a lively dance with lots of intricate interplay among the instruments.

Mike Greenberg