The Lawrence Chamber Orchestra opened its season to a well-filled house at the Lawrence Arts Center on Saturday evening, and a look around at the audience while the concert was in progress showed its rapt attention.
Conductor Steven McDonald meant to show that classical music is not "for snobs only," and the evening's program must surely have succeeded. The well-chosen selections had sufficient intricacy for any audience, and adequate challenge for the orchestra, but they did not intimidate. Even the 20th-century composer who was included neither affronted traditionalists nor puzzled any first-time concertgoers who may have attended.
The program moved from Haydn through Mendelssohn and Elgar to Swedish composer Dag Wiren, and in each case sought to bring music described by McDonald as "not totally familiar" and as "music that should be heard more often." For example, though Joseph Haydn is not principally remembered as a composer of opera, he did write 14 of them, and the evening began with the brief but spirited Presto overture to his "La fedelta premiata," a lively 6/8 piece suggesting a hunt, complete with hunting calls from the oboes and horns. McDonald, who offered "program notes" from the platform, described it as "exuberant, uplifting, full of the joy of life."
Next were two movements of Felix Mendelssohn's "Symphonic Movement in C Minor," written in the composer's teens and played only by the orchestra's 12 strings. A short and melancholy Grave movement was first, followed by a longer Allegro molto very distinctly in the baroque manner, a tribute to Bach and Handel, whom the composer admired. The ensemble developed the movement's fugal structure with admirable precision and feeling, and ended with an impressive display of melodic unison in which all the strings joined.
Moving from early to later Victorian music, the orchestra played Sir Edward Elgar's "Chanson de Nuit," described as "wistful" and as "warm and lush." Though it was recognizable as Elgar, it was softer and more thoughtful than his grand public compositions, with a subtle foregrounding of first one voice and then another, yet well blended throughout. Horns and bassoons lent a mellow tone to the composition, which McDonald suggested was "evocative of a starlit night over the Malvern (or the Flint) Hills."
The final selection was Dag Wiren's "Serenade for Strings," again played only by the orchestra's strings. Composed in 1937, it is reminiscent at times of Aaron Copland's music of the same period, or of Gershwin's "An American in Paris," or of Grofe's "Grand Canyon Suite," without being derivative. After a melodic Preludium, an Andante movement began with pizzicato for all instruments, a technique that continued in one voice or another as background for the melody, and was resumed by all at the movement's conclusion. A lighthearted Scherzo followed, and a bouncy, infectious Marcia concluded the "Serenade."
Throughout the concert, McDonald's conducting helped create an awareness of feeling rather than of academic technique. The performance was clearly well-rehearsed, and the musicians were genuinely in concert with one another. The season promises well for the Lawrence Chamber Orchestra.