Fab Orchestral Fare at St. Matthews

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A capacity crowd turned up at St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church for Saturday’s second Intermezzi concert. On the menu was a delightful assortment of Italian-themed gems for small orchestra, delivered to near-perfection by members of the crack Spoleto Festival Orchestra under the deft baton of Pierre Vallet.

First up was the bubbly overture to Gioachino Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, his best-known opera. It’s a frothy little confection that bubbles over with lovely melodies, plus faux-melodrama and witty touches that set the mood and let you know that something funny’s on its way (the purpose of a comic opera overture). Vallet led a snappy performance that was marred only by a small horn-bobble or two. His interpretation offered some dynamic and phrasing touches I hadn’t heard before.

Next we heard Ottorino Repighi’s Trittico Botticelliano, a suite of short orchestral evocations inspired by three of Italian Renaissance master Sandro Botticelli’s best-known paintings. Primavera (spring) joyfully sampled the high-spirited delights of the season, complete with birdcalls. Adoration of the Magi — with its reverent echoes of the ancient “O come, o come Emmanuel” and a popular Italian Christmas lullaby-carol — reflected the visit of the three wise men to the Christ-child. The Birth of Venus had a sensual aura of old legend to it, musically depicting the emergence of the goddess from her natal scallop-shell. Respighi’s modal harmonies gave these pieces their “ancient” feel, and his abilities as a tone-painter made them a joy to hear. The orchestra sounded confident and supremely colorful.

The final work — Felix Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 4 in A Major (“the Italian”) may not have been the work of an Italian (Felix was German), but it was inspired by the composer’s visit to Italy. Vallet started off the fleet and perky first movement at what I first thought to be a reckless tempo — but his fabulous young players not only kept up with him, but made the music sparkle. After all, chamber-sized orchestras like this can sometimes take tempo risks that a bigger band can’t.

The much darker-toned slow movement, with its spooky “tiptoeing” passages, dissolved into the expansively flowing Con moto moderato section. Our accomplished players offered suave string tone here, plus sweetly singing woodwinds. They barreled into the final Saltarello (a manic Italian dance) at what again seemed to be an impossible tempo — but again, they nailed it, ending with a flashy flourish.

I spoke with Vallet afterward, and he told me that he had indeed wondered about taking things that fast until he first rehearsed with them — and he realized that there wasn’t anything these amazing young SFO players can’t do. On that angle, let me tell you that many Spoletogoers have no idea where these terrific musicians come from, how they get here or where they’re headed. If you’re one of them, check out a blog post I wrote a couple of years back about these “Unsung Heroes” of the festival. You may be surprised.

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