The chamber orchestra is like the Swiss army knife of classical ensembles. It’s a remarkably versatile musical tool, one capable of performing virtually any style of music using almost any combination of instruments. Not surprisingly, some of the repertoire’s greatest works are written for chamber orchestra.
On Monday night, Gateway Chamber Orchestra was at Downtown Presbyterian Church, performing in one of its most appealing configurations: the wind ensemble. The group, under the expert direction of conductor Gregory Wolynec, presented three wind serenades by Alec Wilder, George Enescu and Antonin Dvorak. Gateway played all of this music with immediacy and sincere feeling.
Wilder (1907-80) was best known as a popular songwriter who wrote for such luminaries as Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett and Peggy Lee. But he also wrote classical music for unusual combinations of instruments, so he naturally gravitated to the chamber orchestra. On Monday, Wolynec and his players opened their program with Wilder’s Serenade for Winds, written just a year before his death.
Arranged in four short movements, this Serenade is a gentle and jazzy piece, and Wolynec, conducting without a baton, gave it an intimate reading. The performance was remarkable for its clarity and rhythmic flexibility, qualities that often showcased the contributions of individual players. Clarinetists Lee Levine’s and Mingzhe Wang’s playing brought out the work’s jazzy character, while oboist Roger Wiesmeyer and Jeanette Zyko provided emotional poignancy.
Founded in 2008, the Clarksville-based Gateway Chamber Orchestra plays three kinds of pieces: modern American works, unjustly neglected music and bona fide masterpieces. Ensecu’s Dixtuor falls squarely into the second category. Wolynec noted in pre-performance remarks that Enescu was such a perfectionist that he only published 33 works.
The composer’s obsession for detail was evident throughout his three-movement work. The piece was filled with intricate, interweaving strands of melody. Moreover, its expertly blended combination of instruments often gave off a shimmering, golden glow that seemed to express ecstasy. Gateway’s musicians played with an appealing mix of urgency and lyricism.
Gateway closed with a masterpiece, Dvorak’s Serenade in D minor. Wolynec noted that this was the first work he ever conducted, so it was hardly surprising that he conducted it with nuance and feeling. This amazing four-movement work, which owes a clear debt to Mozart, needs to have the clarity and intimacy of chamber music and the sweep and heft of a symphony. Wolynec and the Gateway musicians gave this music its due, playing with drama and sensitivity. The performance won a deserved ovation.