Just under two years ago, violinist and conductor Joseph Brunjes, a UNCW string faculty member, founded the Oleander Chamber Orchestra with the goal of giving Wilmington audiences a chance to hear an ensemble made up entirely of professional musicians. What a fortunate thing for our region that he did.
The OCO performed on this occasion as part of the "Music on Market" fine arts series of St. Andrews-Covenant Presbyterian Church, offering a concert titled "Russian Remix" that featured works by Alexander Borodin, Shostakovich, and Tchaikovsky, arranged for chamber orchestra.
I was immediately taken aback by the acoustics in the sanctuary. The A-frame ceiling is completely wood-paneled, and there isn't a cushion to be found in any pew. To say the place resonates is an understatement; the basses sounded like an organist on the pedals, and the violins had an ethereal sound rarely experienced in most concert halls. The OCO took full advantage of these surroundings by opening the concert with a Nocturne by Borodin (from his String Quartet No. 2); with various echo effects throughout the piece, melodies seemed to bounce off one another in this setting. A brief duet between Concertmaster Emily Popham and principal cellist Philip von Maltzahn, both members of the Degas String Quartet, was also particularly lovely.
The second work on the program was, for me, the highlight of the concert: Shostakovich's "Symphony for Strings," an arrangement of the composer's String Quartet No. 8. The OCO performed with intensity and concentration, capturing the various moods of a piece that could easily have an accompanying literary plot. Herein lies this orchestra's greatest strength: their collective ability to distill the essential character of a given movement, then shift gears within the few seconds of silence between sections. The first movement was pure melancholy; the second, frenetic energy; the third, an intentional perversion of the 19th-century European waltz (Tim Burton should use an OCO recording of this in his next movie); and the closing pair of Largos gave the entire work an arch that made the listener feel he or she had been gently set back on the ground.
After intermission came a chamber-orchestra arrangement of Tchaikovsky's first string quartet. The emotional journey on which Shostakovich had just taken the audience necessitated some lighter music, to be sure, and Tchaikovsky fit the bill. As the OCO demonstrated in the first half, all the performers seem to listen to one another carefully; unison passages are almost always in tune, tempos are constant, and overall the group exudes a confidence that can only come from being well-rehearsed.
For my taste, the first movement, "Moderato e simplice," could have been played even more "simplice," but the opening minute of the Andante erased any and all dissatisfaction; it was perhaps some of the most tender phrasing I've heard in a long time. The range of dynamics in the Tchaikovsky was also some of the best of the afternoon, with the quiet ending of the Scherzo superbly contrasting the opening bars of the Finale. In fact, given the "live" acoustics of St. Andrew's, perhaps at times a dynamic marking of "piano" could be played "pianissimo," but this idea probably opens a can of worms.
Brunjes and the OCO deserve congratulations not only for this concert, but also for establishing themselves as a unique ensemble devoted to musical excellence. One eagerly anticipates hearing these artists performing even more often each season.