The Virginia Chamber Orchestra has adopted a policy of playing "music worth hearing but not frequently performed," Music Director Fabio Mechetti told his audience Sunday night at Northern Virginia Community College in Annandale. This is sensible for a small orchestra that plays in the shadow of larger ones like the National Symphony and the Fairfax Symphony, and Sunday night's program was a good example of how it works.
Besides the world premiere of Judith Shatin's delightful "Stringing the Bow," the small, highly skilled orchestra played three certified (and seldom heard) classics of modern American music: Samuel Barber's "Capricorn" Concerto, a lively, brightly colored venture into neo-baroque style; Aaron Copland's pensive, lean-textured "Quiet City"; and Leonard Bernstein's brilliant, thoughtful, soaring and sometimes jazz-flavored "Serenade (After Plato's 'Symposium')."
This trio of works precisely matched Mechetti's description. It also justified the program's title: "Adventures in American Music," and it was played at a level of quality that surprised me after several years in which I had not heard the orchestra. Mechetti has given this ensemble a focus, an identity, a sense of purpose and function -- above all, a standard of performance -- that make it one of the most interesting orchestras in the orchestra-rich metropolitan area.
Shatin's new work, commissioned by the orchestra and dedicated to Mechetti, is a marvelously inventive piece, informed with a fine sense of musical logic and a precise knowledge of the special qualities of string instruments and what makes them sound good in ensemble. In an introductory statement, Shatin said that, for her, composing music is like writing a novel; the motifs are like characters and the form of the composition depends, ultimately, on "where the characters want to go." Still, the music showed a composer fully in control of her material at all points and attuned to what makes an audience come back for more.
All the works except Shatin's had soloists. Carole Libelo played oboe and English horn exquisitely and Lawrence Oates played trumpet well except for a few pinched notes in the Barber and Copland works. Flutist Sara Stern was excellent in the Barber, and violinist Ricardo Cyncynates gave an extraordinary performance in the Bernstein, which demands virtuoso technique and ease in a wide variety of styles.