Monterey Symphony season finale

By Scott MacClelland

SOMEONE ASKED ME about the Russian folk songs in Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, the piece that concluded the Monterey Symphony’s 72nd season with a bang—several bangs actually, on three bass drums, crash cymbals and bells—on Sunday afternoon in Carmel. This answer could have been in the program notes, but I had to look it up. Indeed, the piece opens on the lower strings with “Spasi, Gospodi, lyudi tvoya” (Lord, Save Thy People); a bit later, the folksong “U vorot, vorot” (At the Gate), and finally, “Bozhe, Tsarya khrani” (God save the Tsar), which, not surprisingly, has the last word.

In amongst them is the French national anthem, La Marseillaise. This was, after all, the composer’s 1880 celebratory piece about the battle of Borodino between the Russian Army and Napoleon’s imperial forces, won by Napoleon but at horrific cost. “General Winter,” as the Russians call it, crushed Bonaparte (see Charles Joseph Minard’s famous graphic below, click on it to enlarge), as it would do the same to Hitler’s Russian shootout at Stalingrad and its gory aftermath in 1943. (Only about 6,000 German solders of at least 200,000 would return home.)

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Tchaikovksy himself grew to loathe the piece, or rather its popularity. Yet no one has ever grown tired of Prokofiev’s “Classical” Symphony, of 1917, that conductor Max Bragado-Darman chose to open the program. At first I thought he was taking the tempos too tentatively—as against the brisk paces favored by many conductors today, until I realized that, at 14 minutes performance time, he was exactly on par. More important, his musicians brought out details that are often lost in brisker performances. The piece is more complex and subtle than many listeners realize yet no less witty as Beethoven’s Eighth Symphony, in just half the time.

BianconiThe piano soloist for the program, Philippe Bianconi, played two works, Liszt’s vulgar, bombastic and ultimately superficial Piano Concerto No 2, and, in its Monterey Bay premiere, Manuel de Falla’s moody, mysterious, seductive Noches en los jardines de España (Nights in the Gardens of Spain). As required by the Liszt, Bianconi was compelled to pound the bombastic stuff, but did demonstrate his delicate touch in the filigree. Falla’s piece, which uses the piano more as a concertante element, is as Spanish as its composer yet as impressionistic as Debussy’s La mer and Nocturnes. Melodic and rhythmic flavors of flamenco move in and out of the shadows.

In both works there were some lovely string solos, notably by principal cellist Adelle-Akiko Kearns in the Liszt, and, in the Falla, Kearns, concertmaster Christina Mok and principal violist David Allcott. (There may have been a solo in the second violins, but the piano lid blocked my view of that section.)

We detailed Bragado’s penultimate season highlights in our Weekly Magazine last week. He and his orchestra have some truly adventurous programs on offer.

Camerata’s “To Pauline With Love”

TrioaBy Monica Mendoza

IN A WORLD where the piano accompanist is underappreciated, the Camerata Singers dedicated their Mother’s Day weekend concert to theirs, Pauline Troia. After performing with them for roughly 30 years, Ms Troia is retiring from a long and fruitful career. She herself selected most of the pieces on the program, and each showed her technical skill, expressive phrasing and sensitivity to the singers.

Heard Friday night in Salinas, the program consisted of short works that despite their brief duration held much meaning. Especially meaningful in the context was Companioned, with text by Lucy Maud Montgomery and music written by the young Daniel Brinsmead. Maestro John Koza explained how much this piece in particular meant to Ms Troia. The poem is about how the narrator is never truly alone due to the presence of nature all around her. While reading along during the performance of this piece I found myself listening through the perspective of an accompanist and the musicians they are supporting. Like the companionship of nature spoken of in the poem, the support and strength of the accompanist is sometimes overlooked but also constant. Between the accompanist and the choir there must be a relationship consisting of complete trust, and even though it is not what Montgomery was thinking of when she wrote her poem, Companioned seems to narrate the life of an accompanist. Aside from the depth of the words, the musical writing was also a treat to the ear, with much rhythmic variety and a rich polyphonic texture. Brinsmead is just a few months shy of his 30th birthday, but he writes with maturity far beyond his years.

Continuing the poetry theme, Randall Thompson’s The Road Not Taken draws its text directly from the poem by Robert Frost. The wandering melodic lines evoked the feeling of uncertainty, as the words described the choice that had to be made between two forest paths. When the narrator finally decided which path to take, there was a feeling of arrival, as the uncertain melody was replaced by a bright, optimistic one played on the piano. Another Randall Thompson piece was his setting of Psalm 23: “The Lord is My Shepherd.” The piano part was demanding, requiring skill, musicality, and stamina, all three of which Ms Troia displayed. Credit as well should go to the soprano section of the Camerata singers, who hit some impressively high notes unfazed.

Soprano Leberta Lorál joined the chorus for the second time this year, lending her powerful voice to R’tzei by Stephen Richards and City Called Heaven by Josephine Poelinitz. R’tzei takes its text from the Shemoneh Esrei (Eighteen Blessings), which is a central prayer of the Jewish liturgy. The words are an appeal to God for mercy. Though sung in Hebrew, quite far removed from languages most singers are familiar with, the choir didn’t stumble and sang each word with grace as if it was their first language. Ms Loral displayed great virtuosity in City Called Heaven. Her voice leapt through high passages with ease, sometimes loud enough to fill the church, but also sometimes so quiet that you found yourself on the edge of your seat in anticipation. It was a technically impressive but also emotionally intense performance that brought many audience members to their feet when it was finished.

After all the solemn pieces Ching-A-Ring Chaw came as a surprise. Fast paced and sung with great energy and conviction, it was adapted by Aaron Copland and Irving Fine and showed a whole other side of the choir. The refrain consisted of nonsense syllables, which were enunciated precisely and with gusto.

Whether in a fast or slow piece, the performer must have energy to be able to engage the listener. Happily, the Camerata singers seldom disappoint in this regard. The concert concluded with a rendition of the African American spiritual Music Down in My Soul. It was a great channel for the talents of the choir, conductor and accompanist, and a fine ending for the concert.

Though it lasted only about an hour and fifteen minutes, the repertoire choices were thoughtfully chosen and made a big impact, as evidenced by the enthusiastic reception each piece received from the large audience. According to the program, the Camerata Singers return on Friday, December 14th at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church for their Christmas concert. Though next season will bring some changes, namely welcoming a new accompanist, it’s a season to be excited for.