Columbia orchestra shines in swan song

By JOSEPH DALTON, Special to the Times Union

Monday, November 3, 2003

CHATHAM — A capacity crowd filled the sanctuary of St. James Church in Chatham to hear the final concert of the Columbia Festival Orchestra. Last month, the board of this 15-year-old endeavor announced that it must cease operations due to persistent financial shortfalls. It was a strong program to go out with, and that made the evening all the more poignant.

Though dubbed an orchestra, the group performed in various guises for three or four concerts a year. On Saturday, an ensemble of 18 strings played with verve and clarity.

Bach’s Concerto for Two Violins in D minor featured the noted Ani Kavafian and her student Conrad Chow. They made for a good partnership as they traded the interlocking lines, and the whole was ornate and satisfying.

Arvo Part’s “Tabula Rasa” felt like a long meditation. Along with the same two soloists, the score also called for prepared piano, which was played by Sheila Silver, the CFO’s composer in residence. The slow, repetitive structure and the bell-like gongs of the piano gave it an exotic religious feel that was underscored by the church setting. The violinists stood on either side of the central altar with the conductor and orchestra behind it.

Juvenile but not unsophisticated works of Mendelssohn and Britten made up the balance of the program. In Mendelssohn’s String Symphony No. 10, which opened the evening, the lower strings seemed to lose their way near the end, marring the tuning of the final cadences. A highlight in Britten’s “Simple Symphony” was the second movement, which was all plucked or strummed. Though much of the writing chattered on a bit, the performance was engaging.

Gwen Gould, the CFO’s founder and driving force, is not a showy conductor, and her background in choral music seems obvious. Her gestures are high and not broad, but she seemed to never miss a cue and was clear in her tempos. Though her range of expression was modest, the ensemble was very well prepared and communicated the emotional and stylistic breadth of the well-selected program.

Local violinist and composer Jay Unger joined the CFO for an encore, his “Ashokan Farewell.” Though its tender, unadorned writing was a sharp contrast to the evening’s sophisticated program, it felt right nonetheless. After such an exemplary and well-received concert as this, let’s hope we’ve not actually heard the last from Gould and her players.

When: 8 p.m. Saturday
Where: St. James Church, Chatham
Length: Two hours 20 minutes
The crowd: 250 appreciative listeners of all ages