Monterey Symphony

michaeldavidman_342_pianoBy Scott MacClelland

MOZART-LOVERS flocked to Sunset Center for a Sunday matinee to indulge exclusively in their favorite composer and to hear two young artists, precociously gifted 21-year-old pianist Michael Davidman and guest conductor Conner Gray Covington, the new assistant conductor of the Utah Symphony. The two came here as a package deal the Monterey Symphony has with the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia.

Yet strange twists happened. The popular Concerto No. 21 in C got a glitzy but superficial interpretation from both the soloist and the conductor—one assumes by some mutual plan—and the real highlight of the concert, the “Jupiter” Symphony No. 41, got only a moderate response from the audience. (The latter probably from not recognizing the unprecedented virtuosity and power of the piece in its time, which can likely be blamed on the breakdown of public school music education.)

Of course any concerto, including Mozart’s C Major, opens the door to personal interpretation—‘personality’ is probably a better descriptor—and this performance was literal, clean, efficient and forgettable. Mozart’s late piano concertos rewrote the game and gave Beethoven exactly the challenge he needed. With the advantage of historical hindsight, we now know where the opportunities lie. Primarily they open up in the development section of the first movement, the seductively romantic second movement—which filmmaker Bo Widerberg appropriated for his popular but tragic 1967 film Elvira Madigan—and the solo cadenzas at the ends of the first and last movements. Davidman had a big opportunity to leave a lasting personal impression on the audience, but that evaporated under a flurry of facile fingering. That impression therefore fell to the encore, his own (very impressive) solo piano paraphrase of Tosca’s aria “Vissi d’arte” from Puccini’s eponymous operatic melodrama.

I love Mozart’s music and I get cranky when it is reduced to superficiality. Having confessed that, I credit Covington with an effective account of the Don Giovanni overture, with its spooky, creepy anticipations of the title character’s Trump-like indecency and the comedic inevitability of his foibles.

The second half opened with Mozart’s nine-minute Symphony No. 1 in E-flat, a novelty in the context by an 8-year-old child obviously guided by his father’s hand, yet which certainly did outline the classical sonata forms perfected by Haydn.

Even more credit to Covington for the “Jupiter” Symphony. Perhaps some in the audience did not recognize the uniqueness of the breathtaking final movement in which four themes vie for attention in a riotous counterpoint that can’t seem to make up its mind to be a classical sonata or Baroque fugue but manages to be both. There is nothing else like it in Western classical music. (Not even Beethoven could surpass it.) And nothing glorifies Mozart’s singular transcendence with greater force or brilliance. At the end of the afternoon this was the performance to remember.

Pianist Paul Roberts

paul-robertsBy Roger Emanuels

A SINGLE COMPOSER concert program can be a detriment to ticket sales, but the Distinguished Artists all-Debussy recital on March 18 at Peace United Church in Santa Cruz proved the opposite. Debussy is a draw after all.

Pianist Paul Roberts is a leading authority of the piano music of Debussy and Ravel, having published major studies with another on the music of Liszt. Roberts offered up a large and colorful array of Debussy’s major dual contributions to modern music and to the exploration of piano sonorities, performing Images, Books 1 and 2, and Book 1 of the Preludes. Paired with the mighty resident Yamaha piano, artist and piano painted vivid pictures in sound. Before beginning the announced program, Mr. Roberts chose to play a favorite warm-up piece as a prelude, Dr. Gradus ad Parnassum, also by Debussy. Rippling scale passages were supple and sparkling, perfect for what was to follow.

Claude Debussy (1862-1918) had produced his great impressionist symphonic work La Mer in 1905. The six pieces of Images were composed during that era. The Preludes are later works. The two books of Preludes each contain twelve short character pieces, all gems of impressionist art in music. The first set of twelve was published in 1910. Each piece evokes a different subject or mood.

Debussy was drawn to poets and painters, and after seeing the work of English painter JMW Turner in 1903, declared Turner as the “finest creator of mystery in art.” In 1911 he told Edgar Varèse, “I love pictures almost as much as music.” Turner’s subject matter was close to Debussy’s heart: the power of the sea, and natural phenomena such as sunlight, storm, rain, and fog. His paintings of ships in the mist produce a similar effect as the Prelude Voiles, translated as Sails or Veils. Roberts delicate pedaling helped produce a foggy, misty scene.

In “The hills of Anacapri,” a colorful landscape engages the listener, as if hills and valleys are filled with eye-pleasing scenes. “Footsteps in the snow” came across as the composer intended, “sad and frozen,” indicated in score. “Girl with the flaxen hair” was played with sweetness and innocence, with clear and ringing bell tones. “The Sunken Cathedral” was dripping with seawater as it emerged into view. Once again, discreet pedaling is the key to evoking the scene. “The Dance of Puck” brought an involuntary chuckle from the audience at the end of the set. Played without applause until the end, the twelve pieces of Book 1 form an important step in the composer’s development of style and musical language. Seldom performed as a whole, it was a rare treat to hear the pieces this way. An audience member remarked at intermission that although he was familiar with this music through recordings, hearing it live was a refreshingly new experience.

The composer’s interest in paintings is nowhere more obvious than the series of the six pieces of Images, composed in 1901-07. Each is more substantial than the shorter Preludes, creating more variety of mood. As one of Debussy’s many “water works,” “Reflections in the Water” is a vivid sound picture that evokes swirling currents. “Tribute to Rameau” is an elegant sarabande rhythm that ends with the grandeur of the French court of the 17th century. The quirky unfolding of “Movement” suggests sleigh bells. “Golden Fishes” is the last in the series, with fish and water images inspired by a Japanese lacquer print that the composer hung near his piano.

It occurred to this listener that it was strange to hear a complete recital that contained so little music of metrical pulse. One does not tap the feet to Debussy’s rhythm, as it is so irregular and with great flexibility of line. Rather, the ear is filled with sumptuous sounds, an array of musical colors and shadings. Roberts is able to bring out these qualities and create the variety of moods that the music suggests.

The Distinguished Artists Concert & Lecture Series has announced its next season, including an all-Brahms recital by pianist Garrick Ohlsson.