Monterey Symphony, May 21

Noble1

By Scott MacClelland

SAVORING Otto Nicolai’s Merry Wives of Windsor overture, finding the tasty morsels of  Antonín Dvořák’s rarely heard Piano Concerto in G Minor and finally chewing through Cesar Franck’s Symphony in D Minor made for an oddly unbalanced meal in Max Bragado-Darman’s last Monterey Symphony concert of the current season. In their Sunday afternoon performance in Carmel the orchestra and soloist Michael Noble could not be faulted for delivering the scheduled three course menu in excellent fettle. The appetizer sparkled with light Viennese operetta character. The main course, the Franck, inherently dark, ponderous and top-heavy with brass, recalled the long-haul symphonies of Anton Bruckner—though there is no evidence that Franck ever heard any of those writhing Wagnerian serpents who inhabit the forests of upper Austria between the low-lying Danube and the alpine headwaters of the Rhine. In between came the Dvořák, a misfit that promised—or at least proposed—more sizzle than its composer gave it. (“I see that I am unable to write a concerto for a virtuoso,” he wrote. “I must think of other things.”)

In his defense, the piano was not Dvořák’s instrument. Of course he played it competently, in public, and made marvelous use of it in his chamber music with strings. Moreover, it was his first foray in the concerto form. (His violin concerto, four years later, and the great cello concerto of 1895, lay to rest any doubt as to his mastery of virtuoso writing.) Further, no one familiar with his mature works could fail to recognize the composer’s fingerprints, right from the start, including some Bohemian folkloric allusions. Unlike the concert program notes, I wouldn’t go so far as to suggest that Brahms’ earlier First Piano Concerto was a template; that work was the German composer’s first attempt at a symphony. And anyway, Dvořák does subscribe faithfully to the classical concerto form, safely building the long first movement around two major themes. (Various pianists have made emendations to the original, including Czech pianist Rudolf Firkušný, its most-determined 20th century champion, but who finally went back to the original. “For all the so-called clumsiness in the piano writing the original is far purer than any subsequent revision and more truly characteristic of the young Dvořák.”)

The andante sostenuto was a lovely seduction, more urban than rural in flavor. The boldly robust finale sounded closest to the familiar Dvořák, coming as it did just before the music that would put him on the map, the Slavonic Dances. Noble, who played his part from the complete score—hence the rapid-fire page turning—told me during the interval that the piece is not so easy to play. That no doubt explains why this was its regional premiere. For an encore, he sensitively offered the second intermezzo, in E, from Brahms’ Fantasien, Op 116.

The Nicolai and the Franck have nothing in common, save that both composers died soon after the premieres, Nicolai from a stroke at age 38 in 1849 two months after his charming Shakespearean singspiel was first staged, and Franck, from pleurisy and related illness at age 67 in 1890, a year and half the premiere of the symphony.

The Nicolai overture was commonly heard on classical pops concerts of years ago, a neat fit with light fare from such contemporaries as Franz von Suppé, Adolphe Adam, Johann Strauss and—from a later generation Emil von Řezníček and Franz Lehár—for whose music the goal is always clean, snappy playing and gaiety of spirit.

Franck’s ultimate claim to fame is his remarkable economy of means, his ability to recycle ideas throughout a piece, not unlike Beethoven of the Fifth Symphony, only more so. In the Symphony in D Minor, every new idea—many derived from earlier ones—reappears in ever-mounting iterations. The last movement is chockful of everything that came before. Perhaps ironically, the heavy orchestration seems at odds with French aesthetic sensibilities of the delicate touch and transparency of textures. Those qualities run true from the Baroque though the 20th century. There are exceptions of course, Berlioz was capable of great bombast, though he didn’t make a dungeon out of it. Saint-Saëns likewise on both counts. D’Indy and Lalo could get swept away. And certainly Olivier Messiaen, in the 20th century, “piling up decibels as if he were jealous of the sonic boom,” quoting the words of Igor Stravinsky. The most magical moment in the Franck was the beginning of the middle movement, with the solo harp, cor anglais, violas, horn and bassoons. But the sustained dark passages, thick textures, chromatic melodic lines and loud brass put Franck in a place all his own. Only the inflated grandiosity of Franz Liszt’s orchestral music compares. And, by the way, Franck right at the start helped himself, without attribution, to the first theme from Liszt’s symphonic poem Les Preludes. Having died a couple of years earlier, Liszt didn’t care.

SC Symphony’s Verdi Requiem

By Scott MacClelland

THE LAST TIME the Santa Cruz Symphony performed Giuseppe Verdi’s great ‘Manzoni’ Requiem it was conducted by Mitchell Sardou Klein. That was in the late 1980s; I heard it at Mission San Juan Bautista and have obviously not forgotten it.

Nor could I. My love for this dramatic masterpiece borders on veneration; it figures among my Top Ten desert island treasures. So I came with expectations and trepidations to the Mello Center in Watsonville on Sunday afternoon. I needn’t have worried. Daniel Stewart, his solo quartet, Cheryl Anderson’s Cabrillo Symphonic Chorus and the Santa Cruz Symphony itself have given me a fresh new impression that I will cherish at least until the next time one of our Monterey Bay symphony conductors accepts the challenge.

Verdi worshiped the Italian nationalist poet Alessandro Manzoni to such a degree that he demurred meeting him face to face for many years. Ultimately, the two men became friends, and when Manzoni died in 1873 the grieving Verdi set about to memorialize his hero. He conducted its premiere in Milan in 1874. It is impossible to not hear and feel the influence of Aïda, especially the terror of the Nile Scene when the Ethiopian king, Amonasro, threatens his naïve young daughter with eternal condemnation and exile if she does not betray her lover, Radamès. Amonasro’s fury ignites the famous “Dies Irae” of the Requiem. And, in turn, the spectacular “Tuba mirum,” introduced with blazing brass—including two extra bands in the corners of the balcony—and tectonic strokes on the bass drum. This is hair-raising stuff that shook the very foundations of the Mello. Moreover, its operatic soul, theatrical spirit and chromatic melodic lines sustain a palpable unease with little relief throughout the work.

As with all great works of art, this Requiem is a study in economic means. No good idea is not revisited again and again, giving the whole a true organic inevitability. And in a tradition that goes back to Monteverdi’s Orfeo, c. 1607, the narrative gives rise to personal reflection in the solo arias duets and quartets, as well as on the chorus. Opera continues to excite this setting of the Latin mass for the dead, with startling punctuations, like the tenor solo on “Ingemisco”—perhaps a nod to the famous tenor solo, “Cujus animam,” from Rossini’s Stabat Mater—the sparkling “Sanctus” and the fugal final chorus “Libera me.” (The latter was actually recycled from Verdi’s contribution to an unfinished requiem in celebration of Rossini on the first anniversary of the his death.)

stuart neillThe choice of Michelle Bradley, Jennifer Johnson Cano, Stuart Neill and Peixin Chen, all with major operatic experience, was inspired. Positioned behind the orchestra and in front of the chorus, they were more or less not visible to the rows closest to the stage. But their voices soared over the orchestra to fill the hall. Tenor Neill sounded like he is ready to pounce on the heldentenor roles of Richard Wagner; he’s already sung Don Carlo (pictured in his understudy last-minute debut at La Scala in 2008) and Otello. (Cano made a big impact as soloist in March, 2016, with the Monterey Symphony. Bradley is slated to return to Santa Cruz next season for Richard Strauss’ Four Last Songs.)

Don Adkins’ program note tells of German conductor Hans von Bülow, who published nasty remarks about the Requiem in the Allgemeine Zeitung. At the time, he was a champion of Wagner and very much under his sway; Bülow hadn’t yet even heard the piece. But Adkins’ account leaves out what happened next, as quoted from the Israeli Opera, Tel Aviv, program notes: “Naturally, Italian opinion was outraged by the article. But the most devastating rebuke came from that stern guardian of the German classical tradition, Johannes Brahms who said that “Bülow has made a fool of himself for all time; only a genius could write such a work.” To be fair to Bülow, that would soon be his own opinion as well. Years later he wrote to Verdi begging the composer’s forgiveness for his abominable journalistic sin. “There is no trace of sin in you,” Verdi replied with characteristic dryness; “besides, who knows? Perhaps you were right the first time!”

Anderson’s Cabrillo Chorus was at its best in the more reflective and intimate moments, from their first whispered “Requiem,” to their last “Requiem aeternam,” from their comforting “Lacrymosa” to their quicksilver “Sanctus.” But they had their work cut out when the orchestra poured it on in the big fortissimo scenes. The orchestra, for its part, was acutely responsive to conductor Stewart’s fully-memorized, finely shaped and dynamically presented vision. So, not only one of my all-time favorites but a highly memorable one as well.