Monterey Symphony, March 19

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By Scott MacClelland

MONTEREY SYMPHONY music director Max Bragado-Darman produced a fiery Italian guest conductor for his “Romeo & Juliet” program on the weekend. Without a featured soloist, the concert focused on Bruno Aprea, this season’s only podium substitute, with sizzling results for orchestra and audience alike.

It can’t be easy for a locally unknown guest conductor to carry an entire concert on his shoulders. But were it an audition, Aprea, a veteran of his art, scored high marks all around in a program that ranged from a Verdi opera overture to Leonard Bernstein’s complex Symphonic Dances from West Side Story, and, in between, Romeo & Juliet music by Tchaikovsky and Berlioz. None of this was a walk in a Veronese park but under Aprea’s baton it all jumped from the Sunset Center stage with vivid and memorable impact on Sunday afternoon.

A palpably fresh breeze murmured in the orchestra. Bragado is a Spaniard of aristocratic bearing and elegant restraint. Aprea works up a sweat. I thought the real test would be the concert-concluding Bernstein, rife as it is with Latino rhythms and in-your-face Hell’s Kitchen attitude. Aprea and the large orchestra—spilling into the wings—powered through the 25-minute score with confidence. Nothing in the brilliant Irwin Kostal/Sid Ramin orchestration fazed a band far more used to tamer fare. (By the way, the program booklet made a point of introducing, by name and instrument, the orchestra’s 12 new members.)

Aprea opened the program with the overture from Verdi’s opera La forza del destino, a pasticcio composed, after the fact, of tunes and themes from the opera. As such, they are introduced in a sequence of discrete bits, then later in combinations with one another, energy piling up under Aprea’s stick.

Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet, a programmatic tone poem structured according to classical sonata form, got a fine reading here. Framed by wind chorales, its two main events are the violent confrontation between the Capulet and Montague adolescents and the soaring love music (which did become a duet in the only scene from an unfinished opera.) When the love music first appeared, Aprea played it tenderly, naïvely. It came round again with more intensity and then on the full orchestra, accounting for its reputation as one of the first symphonic examples of erotic music.

The second half opened with two scenes from Hector Berlioz’ Roméo et Juliette “dramatic symphony.” Like the Tchaikovsky, its elements are programmatic, only much less beholden to classical architecture—but then, Berlioz invented 19th century program music. (In his orchestral music and opera it was the only kind he composed.) The piece was premiered more than 30 years earlier than the Tchaikovsky, and in full takes 96 minutes to perform. The two movements on this concert—“Love scene” and “Romeo alone”—lasted 33 minutes, roughly half of that time divided between them. They, in turn, are further subdivided. The “Love scene”—which actually follows “Romeo alone” in the original—is set in the deserted Capulet garden, then it turns its attention to the young Capulets singing bits from the party that has just ended. “Romeo alone” begins with his sorrow, then two melodic phrases, the first, Romeo, the second, Juliet. (Wagner, who called Berlioz “devilishly clever,” stole them and with the slightest adjustment, turned them into his Tristan and Isolde themes.) Soon, we hear hints of the main theme of the Capulet ball, then a surging theme on the orchestra, a momentary full stop, and the Capulet ball itself in full glory, the Romeo and Juliet themes blaring through.

Confused? It takes either a strong memory of reading the details of the ‘program’ or an outline in your hands. In the dark auditorium, the latter choice is a non-starter. Still there is unprecedented genius in this mercurial music which, in its time, was as avant-garde as you could get. Bravos to Aprea and the orchestra for tackling it and pulling it off as well as they did, though some in the audience seemed more mystified than enlightened. Isn’t it always thus with the avant-garde of any era?

The Monterey Symphony will announce its 2017-18 season soon. We’ll have the details in our Weekly Magazine.

Ensemble Monterey in Santa Cruz

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By Scott MacClelland

NOW IN ITS 25TH ANNIVERSARY SEASON, John Anderson’s Ensemble Monterey echoed last winter’s Big Blow of wild storms with a program of music for wind instruments. Heard Sunday evening at Peace United Church in Santa Cruz, the concert opened with the early (1793) Octet, Op 103 by Beethoven—the high opus because the piece was published only after the composer’s death—and closed with the Monterey Bay Area premiere of the late-on (1945) Symphony for Winds “The Happy Workshop” by Richard Strauss.

The former was played in twenty-five minutes, the latter in forty. And though each followed forms and conventions of the Classical style-period, the differences were significant. Beethoven was in his early twenties when he composed works for wind bands on commission. These pieces, as had been the earlier example of Haydn, Mozart and a slew of forgotten composers of that era, were intended as background music at aristocratic social events. In other words, they were designed to amuse the performers rather than to attract the attention of the ‘audience.’ Like most Baroque instrumental music, it was an art for players. Asking an audience to bear down on such music in search of every clever nuance—like the hifalutin solo horn licks—reminds me of a line in the Fleetwood Mac song “Dreams” from the 1977 album Rumors: “players only love you when they’re playing.” It’s simply misplaced hard work for listeners to little avail. Still, Beethoven was never content with following conventional rules, so he loaded up the piece with traps and tricks for the players that did bemuse the attentive ears in the room.

Strauss on the other hand was always acutely aware of selling his music to audiences and, in 1944-45, having come back from what he thought was his deathbed, crafted a full-scale symphony that lavishes sumptuous pleasures on players and audience alike.

And so it was on Sunday when the chatter afterward celebrated the opulent Strauss—music that could only have been written by a man who called himself “a first-class, second-rate composer.” Strauss crafted the piece for his pleasure at his villa in Garmisch, hard-by the Bavarian Alps, and somehow synthesized recognizable fingerprints from across his entire career. His attraction to the sonorities of wind instruments can only be compared to Mozart’s Gran Partita, a piece (and a composer) Strauss adored. On top of that, he managed to create new sound combinations and effects not heard in any earlier work of his or anyone else’s.

Where the Beethoven used eight instruments, the Strauss called for seventeen: two each flutes, oboes, bassoons, six clarinets, including basset horn, four horns and contrabassoon, here replaced by double bass. Cameo solos dotted the scene. The resulting tapestry of sonorities, if fashioned into a pastry, was calories through the roof. The two outer movements were the most ambitious, accounting for thirty minutes between them, the first a great sonata in E-flat and ¾ time (like the opening movement of Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony) and the finale that began mysteriously in the dark sepulchral registers of the band. It and the menuet, which contained two trios, rose to flamboyant climaxes. Between the movements, the players wicked-out condensation in their instruments. Karen Sremac’s basset seemed to require the most such attention.

Between these two hefty wind pieces, a choir of 18 young women, grades 8 through 12 from Pacific Collegiate School, sang a startlingly original Benedictus by the early 16th century Protestant composer Sixtus Dietrich, followed by the witty “Il est bel et bon” (He is handsome and fine, my husband is…”) by Pierre Passereau, also from the 16th century. Then, joined by three young men from the school, a pianist and two violinists, they performed a touching wintertime setting, The Snow, by Edward Elgar to words by his wife Caroline Alice Elgar, published in 1895. This choir, Bella Voce, were masterfully directed by Alice Hughes, who has been teaching and conducting voices in the Santa Cruz area since 1981. The group’s balanced blend, pitch-accuracy, dynamics and—in the Passereau—swagger raised as much buzz as the Strauss symphony.