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Gerald Carpenter: Santa Barbara Chamber Orchestra Pulls All the Right Strings

Tuesday's "String Fever" features the works of Dvořák, Grieg and Webern — all conducted by Ohyama

The Santa Barbara Chamber Orchestra plays its January concert at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday in the Lobero Theatre. This concert is the SBCO’s annual all-string program, called “String Fever.” This year’s program — conducted, of course, by Maestro Heiichiro Ohyama — consists of three works: Edvard Grieg’s “Holberg Suite, Opus 40;” Anton von Webern’s “Five Movements, Opus 5;” and Antonín Dvořák’s “Serenade for Strings in e-minor, Opus 22.”

Edvard Grieg liked to keep his music clean and simple.
Edvard Grieg liked to keep his music clean and simple.

Grieg always comes as a breath of fresh air, even when he doesn’t follow something stale. There is something pure and invigorating about his music — as befits a man who would leave a note to thieves when he went for walks: “Please help yourself to anything but my music — which is worthless, anyway.” He wrote this lovely suite to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the birth of Baron Ludvig Holberg (1684-1754), a famous (in Norway) writer, essayist, philosopher, historian and playwright. Actually, the suite’s proper title is “From Holberg’s time,” and it bears the subtitle, “Suite in olden style.” It is a suite of dances in the style of the early 18th century. Composers from Franz Liszt through Peter Warlock and Ottorino Respighi have discovered this or that cache of ancient dances and arranged them for modern orchestras. Grieg’s work falls somewhere between “À la Chapelle Sixtine” and “Capriol” — and all three were originally composed for piano.

Then there is Webern. I have long since been won over to the music of Arnold Schoenberg and Alban Berg, but I tend to find Webern’s music too attenuated, too esoteric. (Almost all the musicians with whom I have spoken have expressed the opposite preference.) An album by the Quartetto Italiano, his complete music for string quartet, caused me to revise my interest upward. First, there was the ultra-poignant, ultra-Viannese “Slow Movement” from 1905, then a hyper-romantic quartet from the same year, “These Five Movements,” on the same record, for they were written for a string quartet. They are likely to sound even more substantial, more important, arranged for string orchestra.

Dvořák to the rescue. When it comes to a serious composer writing unforgettable tunes — and lots of them — the Bohemian just about has the prize. There is scarcely a form he has not graced with a masterpiece or five. This “Serenade” is far more interesting, and more tuneful, than Tchaikovsky’s famous one in C-Major. Here, the slightly inhuman quality of a beautifully rehearsed string ensemble is softened and warmed by Dvořák’s gift for color and romance. Czech folk music must be among the richest in Europe — how else to account for the extraordinary melodic content of Dvořák, Bedich Smetana, Leos Janáček, Bohuslav Martinů and the rest? Dvořák showed us, too, where to look for our own national tunes and how to make distinctly American-sounding music with them.

Tickets to this concert are available for $44 and $39 at the Lobero Theatre Box Office, 33 E. Canon Perdido. Click here to order online or call 805.963.0761. Or you can call the Santa Barbara Chamber Orchestra office at 805.966.2441.

— Gerald Carpenter covers the arts as a Noozhawk contributor. He can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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