Monterey Symphony opens season

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Orion Weiss, right, with mentor Emanuel Ax

By Scott MacClelland

IN THE DARK JUST BEFORE DAWN the winter constellation Orion can be seen directly overhead. It is the grandest stellar display in the night sky, looming over all the others in its scope and enormity, unchanging to terrestrial viewers for countless millennia.

Its namesake, Orion Weiss, who soloed in Tchaikovsky’s odd but immensely popular Piano Concerto in B-flat Minor, is anything but unchanging. His performance Sunday afternoon in Carmel with the Monterey Symphony sounded like a search for some new way to discover unexplored facets of expression in a piece notorious for its overexposure on the concert stage, radio and recordings.

And so it went, Weiss going his way much of the time and conductor Max Bragado Darman sticking with his obligation to steer the less wieldy orchestral score around the capricious whims of the soloist. This is not a complaint, but an observation that underscores a friction inherent to a concerto of grandly romantic ambition and proportions. And, after all, the invitation is wide open.

For his part, Weiss indulged a beguiling range of impulsive phrasing, sometimes idiosyncratic and too heavy on the pedal to clarify the composer’s keyboard textures. Yet, in the opening movement, Weiss rejected banging bombast in favor of ‘pressing’ sonorities from the keys, a most welcome choice.

The second movement lullaby sets up a still-controversial trope. The flute’s opening four notes are A-flat–E-flat–F–A-flat, while each reiteration of this motif, starting on the piano and working its way through the orchestra, substitutes the F for a (higher) B-flat. As the king of Siam would say, “Is a puzzlement.” (You can still find recordings that ‘correct’ this discrepancy.)

Weiss’ performance drew a standing ovation and an encore, one of those little Debussy enchantresses.

Back to work, Bragado took on Dvořák’s Symphony “From the New World,” a work of greater substance than many of its fans truly appreciate. Of course, it’s a pot-boiler, a ‘warhorse,’ a pops concert favorite. But it’s also a masterpiece of invention and economy. Who could have anticipated a third theme—based on “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”—that would set the transition from the first movement repeat directly into its development?

Yet in the scheme of things, it is not held in as high regard as the composer’s Seventh Symphony, in D Minor, a work often compared with the symphonies of Brahms. A closer look reveals how adroitly Dvořák recycled thematic material from the first movement into the third, and, like a great actor, his efforts remain in character and spirit throughout the 50-minute work. But the piece is too listener-friendly, insufficiently challenging to be heard as often as it is in concert and, worse, on classical radio. Of all the fine cameo solos in the score, the most memorable is the cor anglais’ “Goin’ Home” in the second movement, here hauntingly played by Ruth Stuart Burroughs.

For its November concert pair, the Symphony will be joined by 30 members of Youth Music Monterey County’s Honors Orchestra, “side by side” with the pros. YMMC’s orchestras and ensembles and conductor Farkhad Khudyev will appear at Sunset Center one week earlier with their own “Freedom’s Expression” program, featuring violin prodigy Nicholas Brady.

Espressivo

c_susanhillyard_150525.011_33By Roger Emanuels

AN ALL-STRING chamber orchestra was the latest iteration of Espressivo, filling the warm acoustic space of the Recital Hall at UCSC on Sunday afternoon. Conductor Michel Singher made good use of the sixteen players under the theme “Stringing You Along,” a survey of concerto grosso, an 18th century approach to composition. Unlike the solo concerto, which became a vehicle for virtuoso display with orchestral accompaniment, the concerto grosso contrasts the sonorities of a small group of soloists with the larger group. In the Baroque era this was a favored form of the Italians and of composers in England and Vienna. It has also inspired composers through the ages. This concert included examples from the 18th to the 20th centuries.

Edward Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro, for string quartet and string orchestra, was composed in 1905 for a concert of his music by the London Symphony Orchestra. The opening sustaining chords were played with confidence. There was a warm resonance to the sound and precision in the attack. The solo string quartet, consisting of Shannon Delaney D’Antonio and Betsy Braun, violins, Ann Coombs, viola, and Judy Roberts, cello, was seated in front of the main group. With slightly more active parts than the orchestra, the solo quartet tossed thematic material back and forth with the orchestra. To emphasize the historical connection with the Baroque, Elgar created a full-fledged four-part fugue in the later moments of the approximately fifteen minutes of music. Conductor Singher maintained clear balance throughout the work, with the fugal entries clearly standing out in the texture.

The six Brandenburg Concertos by JS Bach are some of the greatest works in the concerto grosso form. The fifth in the series is scored for solo violin, flute and harpsichord with string accompaniment and was composed around 1719. This performance featured Delaney D’Antonio, violin, Vicki Melin, flute, and Linda Burman-Hall, harpsichord, appearing in front of the orchestra. The harpsichord functions both as an accompanying instrument and as a soloist. The solo part is unique for its time, testing the virtuosity of the player. Burman-Hall handled the brisk tempos with ease, tossing off rippling cascades of scales and arpeggios in the demanding first movement cadenza. The violin and flute parts are less showy, with beautiful melodic lines. The second movement spotlights the trio only. The performance was well-paced and with good balance between soloists and orchestra.

Bela Bartók’s Divertimento for String Orchestra provided a lively conclusion to the concert. Solo parts are played by section principals rather than seating them separately from the orchestra as in the earlier two works. After the late Romanticism of Elgar’s harmonic language and the Baroque clarity of form in Bach’s concerto, the spikey sounds of Bartók provided a totally different sound world. The dark and brooding second movement reminds listeners of the slow movements of the composer’s string quartets. The third and last movement is a lively dance-like piece, likely influenced by Bartók’s fascination with folk materials of Eastern Europe. Excellent balance of the sections continued throughout the concert, as the ensemble worked very well together to produce a unified sound.

Espressivo has announced their next concert for February 15, 2018, performing Mahler’s Fourth Symphony at Peace United Church in Santa Cruz.