Tuesday evening's season-opening concert by the new Slee Sinfonietta began with Anton Webern's 1940 Variations for Orchestra, Op. 30, followed by Lutoslawski's 1961 "Jeux venitiens" (Venetian Games).
If that is representative of what conductor Magnus Martensson has in mind for the rest of the season, it can be taken as a statement that he intends to present programs challenging to both musicians and audience.
Webern's Variations came from late in his life when his 12-tone serial style had been refined to the barest essentials, leaving behind music which is ultra-distilled, spare and gestural, and in which, according to Henry Cowell, the composer demonstrates a "frighteningly concentrated interest in the possibilities of each individual tone."
With the Variations we are left to listen for pitches, tone colors, shapes, patterns and only the most vestigial references to what we call themes. This is music for the head, not for the spirit or the heart.
The performance by Martensson and the Slee Sinfonietta was well focused, responsive to the mercurial changes in dynamics, and patently aware of the importance of the islands of silence surrounding Webern's widely spaced tones. It made a good case for this music, but I suspect most listeners would have agreed with the man behind me who, after a smattering of perfunctory applause, said to his companion "It can only get better."
It did, I felt, with Lutoslawski's "Venetian Games." In a way, there was less planned structure here than in the Webern Variations, because Lutoslawski introduced elements of aleatoric technique, in which the score leaves much to chance and to the ad lib whims of the performers. Nonetheless, the sound of "Venetian Games" struck the ear as much more structured.
In four parts, the first is punctuated by sharp unison crashes of a snare drum and metallic sound as menacing as the slamming of a prison door, with interludes of quietude or garrulous cacophony in between. The pianissimo second part scampered around attractively then deftly crescendoed to mezzoforte, while the third was an intriguing flute-led discourse.
The last section was very dense in texture, with a sneering, descending trumpet figure and pounding timpani adding a sense of structure, ending with whispered upper register strings.
On the basis of this performance, the Slee Sinfonietta seems to have the elements of a crack ensemble, but the concluding Schubert Symphony No. 5 in B-Flat indicated that there are still some adjustments needed.
While the Finale clipped along in a commanding manner with good, tight ensemble, there were earlier moments when the orchestra's focus was quite diffuse, the strings and winds occasionally sounding like separate ensembles. In addition, the strings didn't articulate the first movement's main theme particularly cleanly and the Andante was played a bit heavily and not particularly lovingly.
First concert of the new season, conducted by Magnus Martensson.
Tuesday evening in Slee Concert Hall, University at Buffalo North Campus.