There have been times in history when composers and performers reacted to straitened economic and man-power conditions by thinking small. Heinrich Schutz produced his exquisite “Kleine Geistliche Konzerte” (“Little Sacred Pieces”) during the Thirty Years’ War; Stravinsky composed his chamber stage work “L’histoire du Soldat” during World War I; and today many orchestras are finding it economically necessary to trim their personnel. Now in its third season, Alejandro Hernandez-Valdez’s New Orchestra of Washington has constituted itself in the forefront of this smaller-is-better movement. It’s a lean, lithe, agile organization, more chamber than symphonic and flexible enough to take on a wide variety of repertoire (a couple of months ago they performed the chamber version of the Mahler 4th).
On Saturday the orchestra fielded an outstanding group of 10 string-players for a program of early-20th-century British music at downtown’s United Church of Christ. Playing with the rich plummy sound so often associated with British contraltos, the sections, only two to a part (except for the three first violins), managed a gratifying unanimity that extended even to their vibratos. As a conductor, Hernandez-Valdez focused on shape and inflection, brought to life in the subtle contours and nostalgic glow of the Larghetto from Elgar’s “Serenade for Strings” and the Slow Dance from Vaughan Williams’s “Charter House Suite.” Playfulness and innocence, such a part of British folk music tradition, was also there — in abundance — as the ensemble danced through Vaughan Williams’s jolly Quick Dance and the Jig and the Finale of Gustav Holst’s “St. Paul’s Suite.”
The program’s centerpiece and biggest challenge was the Benjamin Britten “Serenade” for French Horn and Tenor. The strings handled it masterfully; the soloists, tenor Robert Baker and horn-player Douglas Quinzi were uneven. Quinzi played his opening and closing solos with more muscle than assurance — with the kind of blips and bravado that can make an audience a little nervous — but more than made up for this with the delicacy and lightness of his lightning-like ornamental acrobatics in the inner movements. Baker, armed with a lovely, big, smooth voice, seemed more tuned in to an Italian dramatic idiom that encourages scooping up to pitches than an English one that expects a singer to be there at the beginning of the note.
Reinthaler is a freelance writer.