ORANGE — The finest music-making at the latest concert by the Orange County Chamber Orchestra came in the bleakest piece, the U.S. premiere of "Musica Dolorosa." Written in 1983 by the 44-year-old Latvian, Peteris Vasks, the composition made a palpably sobering impression when Micah Levy conducted it before a half-capacity audience Sunday at St. Joseph Center.
A prayerful opening reminiscent of Barber led to march-like pizzicatos and bow-bouncing a la Bartok. But the quarter-hour work quickly makes speculation of musical lineage moot, and the 15 string players of the OCCO realized every ounce of unresolved anguish. High marks to the violins for pinpoint intonation in the often-stratospheric writing, and kudos to Levy for his committed interpretation.
The best of Mozartean times could have been had in the first half of the program, if Levy & Co. had been able to match the contributions of soloist Gita Karasik in the Piano Concerto No. 21, K. 467. Karasik's performance displayed sparkling and fluid finger work, impeccable shading of soft dynamics, and musical instincts so refined as to make the Romantic Casadesus cadenzas convincing.
Unfortunately, orchestral balances unduly favored the upper strings, and Levy proved unable to elicit a true soft dynamic, robbing the famous slow movement of magic.
Handel's "Water Music" requires a certain buoyancy on any occasion; following the Angst of Vasks' work it was doubly needed. But this reading proved bubbly only in fits and starts.
The high points in the 11 movements of the standard first suite always coincided with the consistently assured horn playing of Paul Loredo and Paul Stevens. Any other effervescence seemed forced, particularly in the fast movements where tempos were generally on the pushy side of quick.