REVIEW: Gospel Train’s a-Comin’

Cape Cod Chamber Orchestra’s Summer Celebration performance,
image by Jean Kirby Photography

The little orchestra that could

It was a beautiful sunny summer day on Cape Cod.  Not the kind of day that you would imagine people would be spending inside, let alone find them at an orchestra concert indoors when there are so many outdoor music festivals to attend and yet, the Pilgrim Congregational Church in Harwich Port was packed to take in the opening concert of the second season, Towards the Sea of the Cape Cod Chamber Orchestra.  Their five-concert season is named for the Toru Takemitsu piece of the same name to be played at the final concert of the season in April 2020. The piece was commissioned by Green Peace in 1981 for the “Save the Whales” campaign which has a movement dedicated to Cape Cod.  In this way, they continue to keep things related to the community and have even added three different run-outs, ‘Brandenburgs-by-the-Sea,’ in addition to the five-concert subscription series.  This is a family affair and one gets that impression right away at the front door with the conductor’s wife at the ticket table.  The audience seemed to all know each other and it was a very casual and breezy atmosphere as we sat and listened to the pre-concert talk by music director Matthew Scinto.  However, do not let this casual mom and pop atmosphere fool you, Scinto and his group are definitely on to something and I think it is the future of classical music.  With orchestras bemoaning the difficulty of ticket sales and trying to figure out what programming and tactics will get people in the door to build a new audience base, Scinto seems to have a clue with community relevant elements, eclectic programming, popular favorites and unusual finds like William Grant Still’s Serenade for Strings and Morton Gould’s Spirituals for Strings and Harp peppering in a couple of pieces by Sibelius, Valse Triste and Erotik from Grieg’s Lyric Pieces, hence the title America and the Nords which also served to highlight African American music.  To add to this non-pretentious atmosphere, he was clad in casual slacks and a short-sleeved shirt senza baton which made the whole vibe one of effortless simplicity. 

Valse Triste was an odd choice for an opener and although very well played it was less enjoyable in this particular program slot.  William Grant Still’s Serenade for Orchestra was a beautiful work that I had never encountered.  According to Scinto, Still’s music is so rarely played that this performance, according to a database he frequents, out of 120 orchestras in this country, it will have only been the 9th performance this year of his music.  Featuring some stunningly beautiful lyric melodies shared by strings, flute and clarinet and an especially swoon-worthy throaty cello passage reminiscent of a sung spiritual, my only complaint was that I didn’t want it to end. Still’s music is well worth programming by more orchestras.

Cape Cod Chamber Orchestra’s Summer Celebration
featured clarinetist David Dziardziel,
image by Jean Kirby Photography

Rounding out the first half was the Clarinet Concerto by Aaron Copland commissioned by and written for Benny Goodman.  Written in 1948, it had an exclusivity contract for two years.  Goodman continually put off the premiere much to Copland’s frustration finally leading him to schedule the premiere with another clarinetist on November 28, 1950. This was motivation enough to spur Goodman to make the premiere three weeks earlier on November 6.  The piece has the typical Americana sound with open intervals, cross rhythms and the angularity one would expect from Copland but you can’t help but notice the extreme range of leaps and the obvious jazz influence, no doubt added for Goodman’s particular talents.  Clarinetist David Dziardziel played handsomely.  His opening, with floating lyric lines which soar into the higher registers of both violins and solo clarinet, seemed a bit flat in pitch but as the movement progressed he seemed to relax.  Dziardziel’s cadenza was agile and he seemed to take on courage making the audience move with the jazz flavor in the little duet with bass and then piano. He handled jaunty rhythms and wide intervals with aplomb.  The orchestra whipped up the wild boogie-woogie-like ending with virtuosity forcing the crowd to their feet.

The second half opened with Erotik of Grieg followed by the very inventive setting of Spirituals for Strings and Harp by Morton Gould.  Use of various special effects in the strings and harp allowed for the imitation of the sounds of the train whistle and train tracks in Gospel Train.  Various other colorations were entertaining such as an entire movement of strumming pizzicato strings. The audience would not stop applauding and they had the ever popular first movement of Grieg’s Holberg Suite ready for an encore.  One got the impression from the audience ovation that they could have played another.

Cape Cod Chamber Orchestra performing its Summer Celebration concert,
conducted by founding Music Director Matt Scinto,
image by Jean Kirby Photography

Special mention should be given to Johnny Demartino for some beautiful and rare-to-hear contrabass solos.  Also noteworthy throughout the concert was some very fine playing from harpist Charles Overton, pianist April Sun, and some fine leading from Concertmaster Jean Huang.  Truth be told, every single member of this young and energetic ensemble really plays for Scinto and there is a definitive sound that you can identify with this particular group.  The violins in particular have a beautiful sheen to the sound.  While there were mild intonation problems and some small precision issues, the joy and real heart of the music and what is important in live performance was there.  Nothing else matters when it works like that.  Nothing.  There is a saying among conductors, a good orchestra will always play well for you, at least 85 to 90%, but you really have to work to get the rest.  This is a marriage of conductor and players that seems ideal for the 100%.

Learn more about Cape Cod Chamber Orchestra at capecodchamberorchestra.org


Review written by Gigi Mitchell-Velasco