On Friday evening, Sir Donald Runnicles conducted the Detroit Symphony Orchestra in another of their "bite-sized", live-streamed concerts. The 45-minute program consisted of just two works: Edward Elgar's Introduction and Allegro for string quartet and string orchestra and Richard Strauss' Four Last Songs, with the American soprano Jacquelyn Stucker, in an imaginative arrangement for chamber orchestra.

Jacquelyn Stucker, Donald Runnicles and the DSO
© Sarah Smarch

Elgar's 1905 Introduction and Allegro was written to celebrate the founding of the London Symphony Orchestra, and was based on the Baroque form of the concerto grosso, in which a small group of instruments is set against a larger ensemble. In this performance, the quartet was comprised of the DSO's string principals, seated with their respective, distanced sections. The stately introduction, full of grand musical gestures, alternates with almost meditative passages. In the following Allegro – itself consisting of several smaller sections in various moods – the distancing between players was sometimes problematic in achieving the precision of the interplay between quartet and orchestra that Elgar calls for. There were moments when the groups of performers were slightly out of sync with each other, but in each case, they recovered quickly.

Donald Runnicles conducts the Detroit Symphony
© Sarah Smarch

Performing Richard Strauss' Four Last Songs in their original orchestration would be unthinkable in these pandemic times. Instead, Runnicles and DSO used a 2005 arrangement by the Australian composer James Ledger for a chamber orchestra of thirteen players. It turned out to be highly effective, with imaginative use of the small forces. For example, the English horn served as the "second horn", and at the end of the fourth song, the clarinet, softly in its high register, blended well as the "second flute" for the closing trills. Sometimes the piano brought the ensemble sound perilously close to that of a turn-of-the-century salon orchestra, but its use solved other orchestration issues, such as having the pianist play notes on the piano strings with a mallet, replacing harp or celesta.

Jacquelyn Stucker sings Strauss
© Sarah Smarch

Jacquelyn Stucker was a thrilling soloist. She has a full-sounding voice, veering toward the dramatic, evenly matched from the bottom of her range to the radiant high notes that Strauss requires. She had the stamina to carry the long lines through, pouring waves of beautiful legato lines. After the rapturously played violin solo in Beim Schlafengehen, Stucker unfurled an ecstatic phrase that was the highlight of her performance. The recorded sound was not optimal. Stucker was wearing a small microphone on the neckline of her gown, but her sound was at times almost muffled and not always balanced with the orchestra. I wished I had been in Orchestra Hall to hear it live, as Stucker has a voice that seems destined for more Strauss. It is unfortunate that DSO did not provide subtitles to the songs, or a link on the orchestra's website to download texts and translations. These are familiar songs to many listeners, but matching text to music always enhances understanding.

This performance was reviewed from the DSO video stream