This was an exceptionally strong performance by the Santa Barbara Chamber Orchestra. Without the addition of a guest soloist, the spotlight naturally fell on the warm rapport between Maestro Heiichiro Ohyama and his talented players. This inward turn was augmented by the choice of three pieces written exclusively for strings. Ohyama’s virtuoso’s sensibility makes him an ideal conductor whenever the work calls for an all-string ensemble.
The opening piece, the St. Paul Suite Op. 20, No. 2 by Gustav Holst, was written for a student orchestra and is full of quirky, Disney-like effects. The orchestra brought off the short suite with aplomb, and left the impression that Holst’s young charges at the St. Paul’s School for Girls, where the work premiered, were lucky to have this magical figure in their midst.
Next was a relatively obscure concerto for string orchestra by Igor Stravinsky. Composed in 1946, the Concerto in D is neo-classical in style and all Stravinsky in rhythm and tone. The orchestra navigated the work’s many complex changes in tempo without a hitch, and made a particularly good show of all the abrupt pauses of the second movement. This work sometimes gets denigrated as the product of a period in which Stravinsky was “tired of tonalism,” but hearing it on Tuesday reinforced the sense that there has always been more to Stravinsky than met the ear of his era.
After the interval, the orchestra returned for a triumphant version of Tchaikovsky’s well-known Serenade for Strings. As familiar as it is, this Serenade gets better with both age and repetition. Tchaikovsky seldom starves his weaknesses or feeds his strengths as effectively as he did in this hybrid composition, which, in terms of form, sits somewhere between the string quartet and the symphony. Ohyama and company milked its delicious expressiveness for all it was worth, and when they were done, a standing ovation coaxed a very brief (and exceedingly rare) orchestral encore out of the obviously happy group. Considering the vicissitudes of Russian and world history, it seems amazing that through Tchaikovsky and ensembles such as the S.B. Chamber Orchestra, the songs of Volga boatmen can still be heard today.