Youth Music Monterey

By Scott MacClelland

“MIGRATION” was the thematic name given to Sunday afternoon’s Youth Music Monterey concert at Sunset Center. Music director Danko Druško, mic in hand, explained it in terms of ‘past, present and future,’ though I’m not sure what that meant. And even though I had met him, and even hosted his guest appearance at my Topics in Music class at Carmel Foundation, I had not until today seen him in action.

And what ambitious action! He gave YMM’s Junior Youth Orchestra the overtures to Verdi’s Nabucco, Wagner’s Rienzi, the last movement from Sibelius’ Second Symphony and, joined by a huge contingent of players from Youth Orchestra Salinas (YOSAL), Manuel Artés’ swinging jazzy Chamambo. While these were all arrangements, presumably simplified for student musicians, they made major demands of the talent at hand. And it showed. Druško got the best from his orchestra but dense orchestral textures by the likes of arrangers Sandra Dackow and Vernon Leidig robbed it of transparency and sparkle. (In fairness to Druško, and except for the Artés, these pieces were recommended by Farkhad Khudyev prior to his departure for Austin.) The Artés actually fared best, with Afro-Cuban instruments and rhythms, shouts from the musicians of “Chamambo” and whole sections standing briefly to punch through the orchestra, à la Pérez Prado. Inexplicably, Dackow’s Nabucco overture omitted the opera’s famous chorus scene on the words “Va, pensiero,” the most cherished moment among all Italian lovers of Verdi’s operas. Yet the upbeat and concisely-spoken conductor gave all praise to his young musicians. (Meanwhile, he is soliciting other student musicians to audition during the next couple of weeks pursuant to YMM’s concert in May.)

During the interval I scanned the full-house audience from down front and spotted a significant cohort of Santa Cruz County music pros, some from as far afield as Bonny Doon—there, I suspect, for the same reason as mine. And to be sure, YMM’s audiences are far more representative of Monterey County seniors, I among them, than only adoring family and friends of the musicians on stage.

YMM’s Honors Orchestra got the real, unadulterated originals and, thanks to Druško’s daring, some truly risky gambits, especially audacious the “peaceful” slow movement from Mahler’s Fourth Symphony, a glacially-moving, ten-minute theme and variations that flatters the principal players of all five string sections with solos and demands a lot of portamento (sliding from one note to another) rarely called for by composers in the last 100 years. Druško admitted as much and exposed his section principals to an unnervingly naked spotlight.

The set began with Arturo Márquez’ infectiously dynamic Danzon No 2, a concert fave across the orchestral world since its premiere in 1994, slow and fast, quiet and loud, sensual and rhythmically energized. Next came the Mahler; primarily for strings it is a test of sustained line, the thread that keeps the music going despite the slowest possible motion.

Portamento also figured significantly in Lance Yang Bauer’s performance of the first movement of the Butterfly Lovers Violin Concerto by Chinese composers Chen Gang and He Zhanhao. The young man (pictured) with an astonishingly prodigious record of achievements, musical and otherwise, took center stage for these hauntingly gorgeous pentatonic melodies, not previously heard live in the region. Druško paid careful attention to his soloist; a well-cheered standing ovation ensued.

The concert, with rain falling outdoors at the start, ended with late afternoon sunshine following a 23-minute concert suite from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake ballet. Harpist Tara Ragsdale-Cronin gave authority to her breathless harp cadenza, flattered by solo violin and cello partners in duet.

In Danko Druško, Youth Music Monterey County has acquired a fine new artistic director and, by force of his personality, ambassador to the community at large.  





Violinist David Dally & Ensemble Monterey

 By Dana Abbott

“SERENADE FOR AN EARLY SPRING,” presented by Ensemble Monterey on February 22, performed string orchestra music at a Monterey church, in conductor John Anderson’s rich sojourn into developing style and sonority.

Josef Suk’s Serenade in E Flat (premiered 1895) opened the concert with late 19th century chamber pleasantry. A student and later son-in-law by marriage of Antonín Dvořák, Suk composed effectively for strings at an early age with wispy tunes, logical development and classic four-movement structure. The writing is busy, the material not particularly memorable, though the third movement opens with a promising cello line and the piece ends with joyful romp. The Serenade is often encountered on classical radio programs where it sounds like what it is, pleasant but diluted Dvořák. 

Ralph Vaughan Williams studied briefly under the masterful Maurice Ravel.  Ravel focused on getting Vaughan Williams to write less densely orchestrated material. Soon thereafter, he composed Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis for the Three Choirs Festival in Gloucester. It is an innovative piece of quasi-church material based on a psalm setting by Tallis from the latter 1500s. Vaughan Williams removes the string ensemble from the divertimento and salon settings of the 19th century and develops a new template with a huge dramatic statement and massive sonority carefully contrasted with small groupings with the composer’s specified seating in the form of a concerto grosso. The piece is often turbulent, reverential and colorful within its modal harmonies as quoted from the Tallis. The antiphonal effects the composer intended were limited by the size of the ensemble, which numbered fifteen. But the piece and performance were effective, a tribute to VW’s vision and journey toward new musical horizons. 

New horizons and kaleidoscopic color were abundant in Michael Daugherty’s Fallingwater, for solo violin and string orchestra, composed for Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg and the New Century Chamber Orchestra who premiered it in San Francisco in 2013. The busy soloist was David Dally (pictured) who reported spending two months to prepare the piece. Daugherty is well known as a composer of immense talent and wide-ranging interests. He says he needs a solid foundational concept before beginning a new work. In this case it was the innovative work of architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Four movements were written around specific Wright projects, Taliesin, Wright’s 600-acre estate in Wisconsin; Falling Water, a home in Pennsylvania positioned over a waterfall; the Unity Temple, a church project in Chicago suburb; and the Guggenheim Museum in New York City, a spiral shaped display building. Daugherty opened what he also considers his second violin concerto with the soloist in exposed harmonics. The music soon develops a soaring, lyrical, nocturnal theme. The second movement, a scherzo, is dramatic rather than bucolic.  Daugherty finds inspiration in the thrusting shapes of the house within its setting.  The third movement is meditative; the fourth subtitled “Ahead of the Curve,” is athletic and playful with the soloist leading and challenging the orchestra using material that goes regularly into new but related directions. Daugherty’s orchestration for string orchestra is marvelous with variety and color. 

The audience response to Fallingwater was most enthusiastic. The piece has much to offer, fresh and varied writing, generous and alluring tune and structure, and an abundance of satisfying yet quirky endings for each movement. Dally delivered. The soloist, orchestra and conductor were clearly vivified by the score.  Anderson’s program presented three fine examples of string music from three different eras and style-periods.