The Chamber Orchestra of the Symphony of Oak Park and River Forest started off their concert last Sunday not as the program indicated, but con brio just the same. Con brio means "with spirit," and the trombone quartet showed theirs in the opening piece by appearing in shorts and short-sleeved polos.
Their apparel didn't match the noble history of the trombone, which Mozart used in an especially serious and compelling manner in his Requiem, to be followed by equally moving passages in Beethoven's symphonies. The master of ceremonies explained that all of the pieces on the program were brief, and therefore, the audience was being treated to "selected shorts." Far better than playing short pieces and treating the audience to selected briefs.
Drawn from the symphony's ranks, the quartet also offered Ralph Sauer's transcription of Brahms' six miniatures, Marienlieder (Songs of Mary), Opus 22. Brahms wrote this set for the Women's Chorus that he directed in Hamburg, but the deutsche Frauen complained, hopefully with due respect, that the songs were too low in their range to be performed. Rather than give up the low register, which Brahms was frequently drawn to (the opening movement of his Requiem omits violins, for example), he edited the songs for a mix of male and low female voices.
The Songs of Mary are not based on Biblical accounts of Mary, but on colorful, and often unbelievable, German legends that sprung up in the Middle Ages. Although hinting occasionally at folk song as Brahms loved to do, the stronger impression in these pieces is hymn-like and was well-suited for the rich timbre of brass instruments.
Serenade for Flute, Strings & Percussion by Armando Susmano, a retired and distinguished cardiologist-turned-composer from Deerfield, closed the first half. Walfrid Kujala, formerly principal piccolo of the CSO, graced the performance as soloist. The audience reserved their warmest applause for Susmano, in spite of his being sandwiched between the giants Brahms and Mozart.
The second half of the concert opened with the orchestra's winds, who played it safe in traditional black concert dress. What I might call "Mozart for Eight" was completely in keeping with the custom in Mozart's day of transcribing the newest art music for wind players, seating them in a common bar or the salon of an aristocratic mansion, and, poof: classic atmosphere, Viennese style.
Ho Chung Yeh, associate conductor of the Symphony of Oak Park and River Forest, conducted the transcriptions from Mozart's Marriage of Figaro, which put the winds duly to the test without any strings to render all of Mozart's delicate and involved filler. For those in the audience who knew the opera, there was some satisfaction in recognizing Figaro's arias played by an oboe. Whether anyone in your favorite Chicago bar would settle for live Mozart while downing a few cold ones is, well, a testimony to just how refined the taste of the average bar-hopper was in Vienna in 1786. And in Prague too, where the beer was considerably better, which brings us to the final work on the program.
Mozart's Prague Symphony, No. 38, K. 504, boldly opens with unsettling and disturbing D minor chords, not unlike the overture to Don Giovanni, which premiered one year later in Prague. Critics have long related these works for their common tonal center, deeply dramatic expression and unabashed moments of effusive cheer, which Mozart conveyed so well, with or without words. Yeh left the audience happily humming Mozart's lively tunes, and a few audience members who had come in shorts were probably the happiest of all.