Monterey Symphony

SiedenBy Scott MacClelland

MONTEREY SYMPHONY CONDUCTOR Max Bragado-Darman has lifted his artistic game to a whole new level over the last three years. Yet I could not square his solo artist’s résumé with her Symphony performance on Sunday. Soprano Cyndia Sieden (left) was plainly not up to the promise of the program, even though her bio included a list of major operatic roles in world-famous houses and concert appearances with many of the top orchestras here and abroad.

Sieden presented a lyric voice, and a lightweight one at that, in the fifth movement of Brahms’ Ein deutsches Requiem, the big Act IV scene from Verdi’s late opera Otello and the final movement from Mahler’s Fourth Symphony. The Brahms, an add-on, with I Cantori di Carmel and its music director Sal Ferrantelli conducting, was offered as a memorial for the many longtime Symphony supporters who have passed on in the last six months. Right away, Sieden was awash in the forces at hand and, though she gamely went for a spinto push, the voice struggled to make an impact in the Sunset Center auditorium.

That struggle intensified, or rather failed to intensify, in the 22-minute “Willow Song” and “Ave Maria” scene as Desdemona anticipates her death at the hands of her insanely jealous husband, then, in prayer, comes to embrace the inevitable. This is where the character’s personality must take the lead and carry the day. The body-language was there but it did not find its way onto the voice. In the German Fach (compartment) system, the character of Desdemona calls for a lyric-dramatic soprano. The ‘dramatic’ usually implies a voice with heft, a big instrument. But it also implies the making of a dramatic character—in other words it demands an actor. Sieden tried but only drifted in the direction of creating the role and, again, could not muscle up enough horsepower to pull it off.

Things did not improve in the final ten-minute solo from Mahler’s Fourth, a child’s description of life in heaven. Here, pitch insecurity started to nag. Only when the tempo slowed in the last half of this orchestral song did Sieden begin to regain confidence.

Meanwhile, Max Bragado-Darman and his orchestra were in excellent fettle. The Verdi scene is a vivid reminder that its composer, often cast as a throwback against his contemporary, Richard Wagner, was actually accelerating in the direction of Wagner with this work, ie, dramatic scenes in place of popular tunes. At its premiere in 1887, at Milan, Verdi was 74 and had long since retired following the success of Aïda, which premiered 16 years earlier. (When Otello premiered, Wagner was four years dead.)

In the Verdi, and even more so in the Mahler, Bragado showed how deeply he had probed this music. I would say he knew more about what is going on in these works than his soloist did, and his orchestra certainly responded in kind.

In the Mahler Bragado and his orchestra delivered an absolutely thrilling account of some of the most complex and effervescent music ever composed for an orchestra. How Mahler did it boggles my mind. (And he kept doing it for six more symphonies, the last unfinished but still cutting-edge.) How, for example, was he able to concoct such fragility and bombast at the same time? How did he take the idea of the symphony—an historic combination of repetition and surprise—to the very edge of coherency?

Yet, here it was, a pageant of cameo solos and symphonic authority that made oil and water emulsify. The long first movement, opening with sleigh bells, seems idyllic, childlike, before the adventure starts to turn serious, circuitously early on, then determined, as it builds to a frightening climax signaled by trumpet fanfares that predict—and indeed will recycle in—the huge funeral march that opens the composer’s Fifth Symphony. As opening movements go, this is/was nothing short of a 4th of July fireworks show, all sizzle and spectacle, yet still making sense.

Of all the magic and mystery of the similarly schizophrenic second and third movements, the principal horn, Daniel Nebel, (CORRECTION: the solo horn for this concert was Alex Camphouse) played what amounted to a horn concerto, brilliantly. What a find, this guy!

What I love about Mahler’s symphonies is the gauntlet he throws down. The mournful cor anglais (played by Ruth Stuart Burroughs), the clarinets with their bells aimed directly at the audience, the cavorting horns, the sparingly used harp, the sleigh bells in the percussion. Mahler was painting a pre-Schoenberg ‘expressionist’ music at the same time Debussy was writing atonal ‘impressionist’ music. Love Debussy, but Mahler was at least as visionary in the 20th century sweepstakes.

Wu Han-Setzer-Finckel Trio, Apr 9


By Scott MacClelland

PIANIST WU HAN is undoubtedly one of the great chamber music artists of our time. She and her husband, cellist David Finckel (left above), have long been described as a “power couple” in their field, founders of the celebrated Music@Menlo festival in Menlo Park/Atherton and, since 2004, artistic directors of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center in New York.

Media puff you may say, but on many levels well-deserved. As displayed on Sunday at Carmel’s Sunset Center—alas to a half-filled house—Wu Han was consistently brilliant in three Beethoven piano trios yet, with the Steinway lid fully open, never dominated her colleagues. They were Finckel and violinist Philip Setzer—both founding and longtime members of the acclaimed Emerson String Quartet—Finckel now retired.

Wu Han, a sparkler of a personality in any context, opened the matinee with a 15-minute spoken intro to this second set—the first group of three were heard during the Carmel Music Society’s previous season—of the complete Beethoven piano trios, acknowledging that they had flown in after playing all six works on Saturday in Orange County. On the upside, there was no glossing over the rich, often surprising, frequently amusing substance of the music, as has been known to happen with even the best ensembles when they’ve allowed themselves to go on autopilot. Still the interpretive edge seemed to soften in the grand “Archduke” Trio that concluded the program. Fatigue perhaps? Or, once established in grandeur, does a more circumspect, less heaven-storming concept make the grade? Of one thing I am sure: Beethoven’s own fortepianos were never powerful enough to realize the force of his imagination.

(By the way, Patrick Castillo’s printed program notes make no mention of the five other piano trios, mostly without opus numbers but certainly recorded and performed, and none of the violin sonatas, as if they didn’t matter.)

The three trios heard Sunday span the composer’s career, from his Op 1, No 2 in G, from 1793, to the Op 97 “Archduke” of 1811, and sandwiching the Op 70, No 2 in E-flat  published in 1809. As such, they represent changes in style, the first and last being more straightforward in conserving their ideas, the Op 70 more teasing and digressive, a sharp contrast from the Baroque example in which a single movement would retain the same character throughout. (While the classical style established numerous innovations, most of them stem from Baroque models, many of which continued among latter-day descendent works through the more conservative composers of the 19th century.)

All of the works on this program contain four movements, the Op 1 and Op 70 lasting 30 minutes in performance, the Op 97, 40 minutes. Each of the 12 movements come with surprises, rhythmic as often as melodic. The steeplechase final presto of the Op 1 absolutely sizzled, drawing the most bravos of the afternoon. In his early 20s, Beethoven had already surpassed Mozart and Haydn in sheer invention. In her remarks, Wu Han had pointed out features of the Op 70 that were more like Schubert; its skipping second movement is a double variations. The distribution of material gave the strings a bit more independence than in the Op 1. In this regard, the Op 70 actually explored more possibilities than the Op 97. But the “Archduke” aims higher and delivers both grandeur on an unprecedented scale and some weirdly surprising turns, as in the spooky bits in the scherzo, otherwise the biggest toe-tapper of the concert. The andante cantabile third movement, a hymn barely disguised, expanded into a broad variations, its mood suggesting the great prayer from the late A Minor string quartet Op 132. The finale of this marvelous piece seemed a little too happy-go-lucky to fit the context.

Although these musicians have plainly committed this repertoire to memory, they resisted the temptation to show off. Uniquely among them, Wu Han read her part from a digital tablet, turning pages with her left foot on a pedal.