Baroque, classical, romantic, modern - the full music palette of Divisa Ensemble

By Jean Bartlett, Pacifica Tribune Correspondent
San Jose Mercury News
October 15, 2013

A visit to the website of Divisa Ensemble offers short, extraordinary listens into the color, precision, and deep musicality that marks the music of this all female ensemble. Formed in 2009, the five professional freelance musicians - flutist Tomiko Tsai, oboist Adrienne Malley, violinist Quelani Penland, violist Stephanie Ng and cellist Sara Styles - knew each other for a number of years prior to forming their quintet, through joint music collaborations, and shared performances. They are also friends.

"We formed to create a unique instrumentation," violist Stephanie Ng said, "something that is different from the groups which already exist in the Bay Area."

The individual members of the ensemble perform with many orchestras throughout the Bay Area including Symphony Silicon Valley, and the Oakland, Marin, Berkeley, California, and San Francisco Symphonies. Divisa Ensemble is additionally the Ensemble-in-Residence of the acclaimed El Camino Youth Symphony. Saturday night the ensemble will play Pacifica Performances. For this concert, Elizabeth Choi will perform on violin.

Divisa Ensemble's Saturday night "set" list is "Flute Quartet K285" (Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart), "Sonate in b minor, opus VII, Nr. 2" (Joseph Bodin de Boismortier), "The Walls of Morlais Castle" (Hilary Tann), "San Andreas Suite" (Nancy Bloomer Deussen), "Duo for Flute and Viola" (Malcolm Arnold), "Kvintet" (Luctor Ponse), and "Petite Suite Champetre" (Jan Koetsier).

"Because our instrumentation is a bit unconventional by classical standards," Ng noted, adding that often a group is made up of only winds or only strings, "our programming often includes underappreciated works, like the Ponse, Koetsier and Tann. We try to present a mix of styles, so our programs have (a mix of) baroque, classical, romantic and modern pieces."

The violist said the members of the ensemble will give a little history on each piece before they perform it. She offered several teasers. Regarding Mozart's "Flute Quartet K285," Ng noted that rumor has it that Mozart didn't like the flute. "But whatever his opinion of the instrument, he certainly knew how to write for it," Ng said. "The second movement is particularly beautiful and unusual because the strings play pizzicato for the whole movement, which rarely happens in Mozart chamber music."

The ensemble thinks "San Andreas Suite" is especially appropriate for this concert, which takes place two days after the 24th anniversary of the Loma Prieta Earthquake (October 17, 1989). She was also quite pleased to note the suite's composer will be in the Pacifica audience. "Nancy Bloomer Deussen is a local composer living in Mountain View," Ng said. "She wrote the 'San Andreas Suite' in 1989 after the earthquake. Unlike many pieces about the earthquake, she chose not to focus on the destruction, but on the resilience of our Bay Area communities. She was touched by the warmth that people showed after such a traumatic event. In her piece, you can picture the sweeping vistas, feel the sun, and get caught up in the activity downtown."

In Dutch composer Jan Koetsier "Petite Suite Champetre," the violist said the audience will hear sound effects such as shepherds' pipes, whistling winds, the farmer in the field, and even church bells. "The Walls of Morlais Castle" by Welsh composer Hilary Tann, Ng explained is a moody piece. It imagines the life of a castle out on the moor, emerging from the fog," Ng said. "There was activity and commerce, as well as battle, and now the castle has retreated back into the mist."

In a world where YouTube and iTunes rule so many listeners, what makes a "live" concert so exceptional? "When you listen to a recording, you are listening to something that happened in the past," Ng said. "Whatever you might be doing has no impact on the performance because it already happened. At a concert, even if you are sitting quietly, you affect the performers, just as they hopefully affect you. There is a give and take - the people on stage are performing for you."

Ng believes classical music has something in it for individuals of every age and music inclination. "Though much of classical music was written long ago, it still stirs emotions. When you hear the opening of Beethoven's 'Fifth Symphony,' how can you not be frightened? As you listen to Ravel's 'Bolero,' there is a sense of excited anticipation. Classical music is often seen as being snooty because it seems like you have to be educated about it to really understand it. But what makes it relevant and relatable is that no matter what you know about it, it can still affect you on a primal level."

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