It is a refreshing experience indeed to hear the vigor and spunk with which the young musicians of the Spoleto Festival USA Orchestra perform, especially when they're subdivided into smaller ensembles and play out-of-the-ordinary repertoire.
At the first of four Intermezzo concerts, held at Grace Episcopal Church on Tuesday, conductor Aik Khai Pung led an intrepid group of adventurers in a program devoted to 20th century music that paid homage to the Baroque.
Three short works by Benjamin Britten, Arthur Honegger and Philip Glass each in their particular way mimicked the concerto grosso form while offering listeners the distinctive sounds of three unique styles.
A concerto grosso ("big concert") typically is a dialogue between a full ensemble and a smaller group of clutch players called the concertino ("little concert"). That happened in all three pieces, more or less.
Britten's Sinfonietta, op. 1, written in 1932, employed a typical three-movement, fast-slow-fast formulation and charmed with its quirky, tricky counterpoint and neo-Classical gestures. Written when Britten was just 19, the piece is the product of a composer who had settled on his style early in his career.
Honegger's Concerto da camera from 1948 presented the same form but a very different sound: often dense, dissonant and moody, with moments of light melodic interplay between two very fine soloists, Jamie Yoo on flute and Lauren Williams on English horn.
Glass' piece, Concerto grosso from 1992, was clearly the most accessible of the three, with its repeated, triadic tonalities, major-minor shifts and thrumming textures. It was played with terrific energy and careful attention to dynamics and detail, but the piece, like much of Glass' work, just doesn't seem to matter very much.
On the podium Pung demonstrated a real knack for this repertoire. His direction was precise and expressive, never getting in the way. He clearly inspired in these excellent players a commitment to the task, which was performed with energy, accuracy and a heartfelt desire to create something meaningful for the appreciative patrons in the pews.