Monterey Symphony, Nov 18

By Scott MacClelland

POOR BEDEVILED SERGEI PROKOFIEV, suspicious, jealous, paranoid… But when he sat at the piano he showed ‘em all, as brilliant a composer as he was a pianist. His third piano concerto, as performed by the Monterey Symphony on the weekend with Huhsoloist David Jae-Weon Huh, the tallest Korean man I have ever seen, sizzled the piece with shooting stars that left the Saturday night audience in Carmel at first breathless but then noisy in its enthusiasm. Prokofiev composed five piano concertos, each with its own measure of brilliance, but this one, completed in 1921 in France and premiered with the composer as soloist in that year in Chicago, has enjoyed the greatest popularity of them. Its haunting melodies, often-stringent harmonies, sparkling syncopations and spectacular climaxes impart a circuslike atmosphere of spinning lights and dizzying high-wire acrobatics. The piece works out the orchestra nearly as much as the soloist and Max Bragado-Darman’s ‘instrument’ rose to the challenge.

The second movement, a variations, was initially sketched out in 1913. It’s a tour de force by itself, a showpiece for the orchestra and riotous in its style contrasts. The theme itself Prokofiev would later recycle in his ballet Romeo and Juliet of 1935. The second variation is motivated by a strong backbeat that gives it a jazzy character. The third variation, with its prominent horn solo, recalls Rachmaninoff’s Paganini Rhapsody, which would not be composed until 13 years later in 1934! Since Prokofiev was famously jealous of Rachmaninoff’s hugely popular concertos, could it be that the older composer was just rubbing it in? An odd feature of the movement is that Prokofiev ends each variation with the same sighing gesture.

Back to the races for the final movement, like the first another steeplechase that goes on to achieve the greatest climax of the entire concerto. One artificial gauge of its success in performance is how long it feels, as measured against the clock. In this case, its 30 minutes flew by in what felt like scarcely more than 20. To rousing applause, David Jae-Weon Huh rewarded the audience with an extravagantly virtuosic arrangement of themes from Johann Strauss’ Die Fledermaus, a paraphrase of blistering proportions by a fin de siècle Austrian pianist named Alfred Grünfeld.

Like an echo, Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Symphony concluded the program. For its last three movements (played without break) 30 members of Youth Music Monterey’s Honors Orchestra joined the Symphony musicians, ‘side by side,’ adding greater depth of sonority to the whole and warming the hearts of those fans who still bet on a robust future for classical music in America—or at least in Monterey County. (The full Honors Orchestra played the Beethoven the Sunday before in the same hall. Click HERE)

Bragado paced the opening movement as a cheerful stroll through the woods, all sunshine and gentle zephyrs, skipping over its repeat of exposition. The “Scene by the brook” flattered the woodwinds, the birds chirping with infinite charm. Somehow Beethoven continued to turn up new tropes on material heard earlier-on, if not with the same concentrated determination that makes the Fifth Symphony so famous.

Then with the 30 YMM musicians on board came the big adventure: the “Merry gathering of country folk”—the scherzo of the piece—followed by the “Thunderstorm” and the “Happy feelings after the storm” as introduced by the “Shepherd’s song.” Shepherd’s song indeed; this infectious tune gives way to one of Beethoven’s great climactic arcs, a suspense-filled piece of harmonic architecture that invites conductors to approach with caution lest they peak too early or too late. Getting that effect right, as the abundant recorded evidence shows, is no stroll through the woods, and demands a strangely elusive elasticity of tempo. I would like to hear both Bragado and YMM conductor Farkhad Khudyev, from a week earlier, have another go at it.


Youth Music Monterey, 11-12-17

By Scott MacClelland

THREE TIMES EACH CONCERT SEASON Youth Music Monterey County’s orchestras—Junior Youth and Honors—fill Sunset Center to capacity with audiences ravenous to hear young musicians conducted by their acclaimed music director Farkhad Khudyev. How can it be that a youth orchestra—the one continually evolving into the other—attracts such an enthusiastic following?

Some of the explanation must descend from YMMC having survived some serious, even life-threatening challenges, both internal and external, in its now distant past. Under the steady-handed leadership of board chair Dorothy Micheletti, the independent non-profit organization, founded in the early 1990s by the late visionary Ruth Fenton, itself evolved from a predecessor called Youth Orchestra of the Monterey Peninsula, founded in the early ‘80s, whose original music director was Stewart Robertson, a Scot who in the intervening years made for himself a major international career.

Each new YMMC success is very consciously built on what came before. So when Khudyev lifted his baton last Sunday afternoon, the audience, whether or not aware of that history, was already prepared by the orgaNicholas-Brady_edited-2nization’s reputation for excellence.

But that was not all. The concert also featured Nicholas Brady, a locally-raised child prodigy, now eight years of age, who began his public career four years ago, including appearances with Khudyev and YMMC. For this concert, Master Brady performed the three-movement violin concerto in C by Dmitri Kabalevsky, a blustering 20-minute display piece that featured a flamboyant solo cadenza in its last movement. Dialed-in to the considerable demands of the piece, the boy paid little attention to the audience, but at crucial points made eye contact with the conductor. (Brady is now a student at Temple University.)

The 2016-17 season of YMMC’s orchestras set a high-water market. The virtually professional Honors Orchestra delivered performances that made its audiences giddy with love for orchestral music. Yet its ranks were decimated* by the graduation of so many strong players in both ensembles, with an elite cadre of seniors now gone on to university and conservatory studies. As a result, the opening of this new season was, for Khudyev, something of a step back and a restart. (One key loss was that of the Honors Orchestra’s oboe player, with no replacement on the horizon. In the situation, YMMC alumna Monica Mendoza, an exceptionally musical and animated flutist, who moved through both orchestras, volunteered to learn oboe and suddenly appeared as the Honors Orchestra principal. Now 20, she is a student at Hartnell College.)

The orchestras in this concert were, relatively, a bit scratchy as new members joined the Junior Youth and some of its members faced tough new challenges in having moved up to the Honors Orchestra. The JY group proceeded through a short program that grew tougher as it unfolded, from Lev Knipper’s Meadowlands, a polka by Kabalevsky, the harder-still Dance of the Rose Maidens from Khachaturian’s Gayane ballet, and a huge leap up to the final movement from Sibelius’ Second Symphony. In case they had any doubts, these youngsters now know what’s ahead of them.

Young Brady’s performance of the concerto brought the audience to its feet, as came as a surprise to no one. Then followed the Honors Orchestra’s first performance of Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Symphony, a favorite of Khudyev. (I say ‘first performance’ because many members will join the Monterey Symphony and Max Bragado Darman next weekend for their two performances of the same work.)

As the irresistible score opened, with its “cheerful feelings upon arrival in the countryside,” the first solo emerged from—you guessed it—the oboe, an instrument notoriously difficult to conquer. And there was Mendoza, exposed and non-hesitant, with barely six months to gain mastery. Like Bragado, Khudyev understands the art of conducting and the interpretive demands that go with it. So he pushed and pulled his young orchestra even at the risk of taking them out on a limb. They soon found that arriving in the countryside is no walk in the park.

Yet on balance, they rose to the challenge and probably discovered skills they might not previously have known they had. In the long first and second movements Khudyev demanded they flex and extend the tempi elastically according to his vision, as any professional would expect to do. This effect is even more pronounced in the last three movements, which are played without pauses, the third and fifth framing the big thunderstorm scene.

At the end of the day, the sun came out in all its glory with the audience buzzing like a swarm of happy bees.

*reduced by ten percent