On paper, Tuesday's concert by the Slee Sinfonietta looked interesting in its quirky diversity.
But would the pieces fit together well in the listening?
In Slee Hall on the University at Buffalo North Campus, conductor Magnus Martensson showed us that they would.
Charles Ives' "Three Places in New England" was completed in 1914 but not played until 1930. Ives said: "Just like a town meeting -- every man for himself. Wonderful how it all came out."
And in truth, Ives' music was made up of shimmering, glinting, half-remembered melodies, festive band recollections with clashing harmonies and tempos, and misty recollections of a summer day's walk by a river.
Following this, Martensson led exciting, spirited performances of Frank Zappa's 1991 "G-Spot Tornado" and his 1970 "Dupree's Paradise."
"G-Spot Tornado" rides on strong beats and repetitive riffs, often edged by the trombone or other leading voices, and developing a pulse that reminded one of a drunken, dizzying square dance. All this was spun out over an oft-repeated rhythmic ostinato figure.
"Dupree's Paradise," Zappa's musical recollection of a 6 a.m. jam session in a Watts District (Los Angeles) bar in 1964, was more contained than "Tornado," and more thickly scored. There were a lot of free-form noodly instrumental lines, groping piano explorations, and repeated short mottos or mini-tunes, but the piece's length outran Zappa's ability to keep it fresh.
Nonetheless, Zappa's music was the best-realized of the entire program, and on the heels of Ives, the pieces actually sounded something like wholly uninhibited Ivesian extrapolations.
What was wrong with the Ives, then, was not a lack of connectedness with Zappa's music, but simply a fair amount of uncertain playing early on.
The opening movement, "The St. Gaudens in Boston Common" (a memorial to black Civil War soldiers), was quite unfocused at first, with any sense of lineal continuity hard to discern. The playing began to coalesce around the descending ostinato line and was truly biting in the tutti signifying pain and suffering, but overall seemed rather uncommitted.
"Putnam's Camp, Redding, Connecticut" captured the raucous jollity of old-time marching bands rather well, and the concluding movement, "The Housatonic at Stockbridge," was a reasonable evocation of the wandering, aimless pastoral quality and warm, dissonant intensity Ives had in mind.
The concert concluded with Brahms' Serenade No. 2 in A Major, Op. 16, for conventional orchestra minus violins. The absence of the violins' high gloss is supposed to give the orchestra a warmer, mellower sound, but Martensson allowed the winds, especially the flutes, to dominate the 10 strings. As a result, for the most part this orchestra sounded like a not-too-well-balanced wind ensemble with some lower strings tagging along behind.
It's a shame, because this winsome and quite beautiful Serenade is the first purely orchestral work to display the mature Brahms' orchestral sound, and on this occasion that sound was lost in diffuse, almost competitive wind playing in the first movement, overpowered strings and punchy attacks in the Scherzo, and sections of the central Adagio that were not smoothly seamed together.
The concluding movements found conductor and musicians more in a common frame of mind. The Menuetto displayed the best overall melding of strings and winds, while in the Rondo a crispness of attack emerged and Martensson's direction seemed rhythmically looser and more natural.