SC Chamber Players hosts MUSA

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By Scott MacClelland

FOUR MEMBERS of MUSA, the SF Bay Area early music ensemble, opened the Santa Cruz Chamber Players’ new season with a program of 18th century Baroque and Classical rarities—obscurities actually—in Aptos on the weekend. MUSA’s founding harpsichordist Derek Tam, who served as MC, was joined by violinists Cynthia Black and Addi Liu, and cellist Gretchen Claassen—each playing on period instruments.

All eight works, most of them from virtually unknown composers, could claim to be local premieres. Even the more familiar names, Francesco Geminiani, who lived long and successfully in Britain, and Georg Philipp Telemann, who stayed home in Hamburg, were represented by oddities, the former a set of sonatas inspired by Scottish folk tunes from his Treatise of Good Taste in the Art of Musick, the latter a suite for two violins alone inspired by Gulliver’s Travels. (Try to imagine a Lilliput chaconne and a Brobdingnag gigue.)

Gulliver was not the only one who traveled, however. Teodorico Pedrini (1671-1746) wrote his Sonata in G (in the style of Corelli) while in prison in China, where he otherwise spent some 36 years as a Vincentian missionary to the imperial court. The Brit James Hewitt (1770-1827) came to America soon after the Revolution and in 1797 commemorated Washington’s “Battle of Trenton” with a laughable depiction for solo keyboard that ranged from bugle calls to cannons to chaos to grief of the Americans for their dead (the latter played with the muffling lute stop.)

Two black composers, Ignatius Sancho (1729-1780), who was born on a slave ship, and Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges (1745-1799), son of a slave mother and white Caribbean planter, were represented respectively by a suite of minuets and dances, and a violin/keyboard sonata in two movements. (Saint-Georges, who rose to prominence in France for his musicianship and his military prowess, displayed some sophisticated musical techniques, including classical sonata development and, in the final rondo, a truly spooky episode for the keyboard.)

Antonio de Salazar (c. 1650-1715), a Spaniard who spent most of his career in Mexico, opened the show with a locally-flavored instrumental villancico. The concert ended with “Oygan una xacarilla,” a highly danceable jácara from Guatemala composed by Rafael Antonio Castellanos (d. 1791.)

You could be forgiven for not knowing these works or their composers. But you would not get away with calling the Sunday audience incurious.

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.