Last night at Heron Arts in SoMa, the conductor-free chamber orchestra One Found Sound gave their final concert of the year (and the second concert in their fifth anniversary season). The title of the program was Saturnalia Regalia, foregoing any current religious preferences in favor of an ancient Roman festival celebrated near the end of the calendar year. The program selections may not have been as raucous as Roman revelry was known to be; but, at a time when following the daily news is almost an invitation to depression, the spirits of both the music and the performances could not have been higher.
Each of the three selections on the program had its own way of bringing delight to the attentive listener. Conceived in chronological order, the evening began with the overture to Jean-Philippe Rameau’s Naïs, which involves a battle between mortals and the gods of the Ancient Roman pantheon. That battle is in full swing from the opening measures of the overture, complete with the timpani depicting Jupiter’s thunderbolts and rapid-fire articulation across the full ensemble evoking images of Neptune’s ranging seas.
This was followed by one of Johannes Brahms’ earliest orchestral compositions, his Opus 16 serenade in A major. the second of the two serenades, composed in 1859. Both serenades were written during Brahms’ service as a court musician at Detmold between 1857 and 1860. The first (Opus 11) was impressive for its six-movement scale, lasting for about 45 minutes. The second (five movements lasting about half an hour) was most impressive for its unconventional instrumentation, which basically involves only a complete set of woodwind pairs (including horns as woodwinds) and low strings, meaning that the concertmaster is the principal viola player.
This makes for some fascinating experiments in sonorities arising from unconventional combinations of instruments. As might be guessed, the string tones tend to be dark; but there is no shortage of light coming from the winds. Indeed, Brahms brings in a piccolo for the final rondo movement; and what had been merely sunny disposition turns positively raucous. Rather like a canary that has just been released from its cage, the piccolo chirps away with ebullient embellishments while the rest of the ensemble dutifully works its way through the rondo repetitions. This is Brahms’ sense of humor at its best.
The program concluded with Alberto Ginastera’s Opus 23 “Variaciones Concertantes.” This was composed in 1953, shortly after Juan Perón was elected to his second term as president of Argentina. Opinions about Perón vary; but it is generally acknowledged that he was both populist and authoritarian, meaning that Argentina was not the best environment for artists and intellectuals. Ginastera’s Opus 23 may not have been written as a gesture of protest, but it definitely celebrates the practice of the performing arts with attention to both individuals and groups.
Somewhat in the spirit of Benjamin Britten’s “The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra,” individual variations celebrate different instrumental voices, often in fascinating combinations. Thus, there is a scherzo variation for interleaving clarinet parts, while the variation for oboe and bassoon is structured as a canon. Recalling the spirit of Brahms’ serenade, the entire composition is framed by low strings, beginning with a cello accompanied by a harp (playing the open string pitches of a guitar) and assigning the bass as the last solo instrument before a full-ensemble concluding rondo.
The performances accounted for how each of these three pieces had its own unique approach to high spirits. The consistently solid technique of the group thus led the attentive listener through an engaging diversity of rhetorical stances, bound together only by a well-needed contextual sense of optimism. If Ginastera’s Opus 23 amounted to a personal statement of prevailing through Peronism, last night’s concert left the encouraging feeling that we can prevail through the darkness now surrounding us.