The Washington area has so many regional orchestras that the enterprising ensembles among them would do well to distinguish themselves from the crowd. Christopher Zimmerman, the music director of the Fairfax Symphony Orchestra, has been doing just that with his alluring choice of repertoire. The group’s latest concert, on Saturday night at George Mason University, brought together four pieces that I have not heard from a local orchestra in at least a decade.
A mirrorlike arrangement of the pieces embedded two more serious works between lighter ones, by Edward Elgar and Benjamin Britten, both of which recycle and preserve music written early in each composer’s career. Elgar’s “Serenade in E Minor” was a mellow experience, the outer movements gently rolling and the middle slow movement tender, the juicy dissonances drawn out sweetly. Britten’s “Simple Symphony” was just as pleasing, each movement like a bite-size petit four, here tart and there chocolate-smooth.
The heart of the program was Britten’s “Serenade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings,” featuring an elegiac, at times eerily menacing performance by tenor William Hite. Horn player Eric Moore played what looked like a natural horn for the outer movements, heightening the effect of the natural harmonics, which sound slightly out of tune, that Britten wanted in those sections.
Shostakovich’s Chamber Symphony in C minor, arranged by Rudolf Barshai from the composer’s String Quartet No. 8, seemed the only misstep, an anguished cry that was played perhaps a bit too politely. Shostakovich scholar Laurel Fay has teased out the often conflicting explanations of this autobiographical piece, riddled with the composer’s name motif (D, E-flat, C, B, spelling out DSCH). Shostakovich described it as his own epitaph, the remembrance of him that no one else would be likely to write, probably reflecting his shame at being unable to oppose his official induction into the Communist Party.
All of these pieces showcase savant handling of string writing, putting a chamber-size portion of the orchestra’s string players in a pretty good light, with only some intonation problems and ensemble disunity to criticize. This was the orchestra’s first performance in GMU’s Harris Theater, a smaller space than the next-door Center for the Arts with a dry acoustic that did the musicians no favors.
Downey is a freelance writer.