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

Ensemble Monterey’s ‘Wally’

By Scott MacClelland

profilo-alfredOPENING A NEW SEASON of chamber orchestra literature with a program titled “Wally the Beard” had to be some kind of crazy gamble. At least it demanded an explanation. That came in the form of a pre-concert talk by Ensemble Monterey’s artistic director/conductor John Anderson and a program note by Peter Lemberg, the orchestra’s oboist. Somewhere between the lines, the two of them agreed to resurrect an obscure score by Bernard Herrmann composed for an episode of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, a short-lived television series from the 1960s. (The show famously displayed Hitch’s self-sketch to the musical strains of Gounod’s Funeral March of a Marionette.) Finding Herrmann had generously flattered the oboe, Lemberg transcribed the entire score from a recording of the original telecast. Despite the risk of featuring such an obscurity, a goodly audience—a little less than their usual full house on Saturday in lower Carmel Valley—came to discover the reason behind this choice.

For the occasion, a narrator, Ken Cusson (more or less impersonating Hitchcock), established the context of a comedic murder mystery about loser Walter Mills who, with a fake beard and moustache, turns himself into the dashing yachtsman Philip Marshall. A bit less than half of the 33-minute performance went to the narration; the rest engaged an orchestra of 12 musicians—flute, oboe, harp and strings—who revealed the estimable skills of composer Herrmann. The music, obviously not intended for life after Hitchcock, was thematically based, adroitly crafted and included a couple of external references, not least, at the outset, the famous Gounod funeral march. If this excursion proved anything it was the distinctive value of Herrmann’s music. I hope Ensemble Monterey will dig up even more of it in future.

The Nonet in F by Franz Lachner, a Bavarian contemporary and friend of the Austrian composer Franz Schubert, is now and will probably remain his greatest work on the international scene. Scored for traditional wind quintet and a quartet of strings, it fits most comfortably within the genre of Viennese classical serenades and divertimentos of a generation earlier but here—as with Schubert’s “Trout” Quintet—raised to a new and more urbane order of chamber music. Yes, in the right time and place, a touch of genius can turn a sow’s ear into a silk purse.

The 45-minute score is deployed along the lines of a four-movement classical symphony. A generous introduction opens into a broadly ambitious allegro moderato first movement. This was followed by a menuetto and trio, an adagio and final allegro. Overall the most impressive feature was the parade of concertante cameo solos on violin (concertmaster David Dally had his fingers full frequently), clarinet (Erica Horn), oboe (Lemberg), flute (Lars Johannesson), bassoon (Gail Selburn) and horn (John Orzel, who, by an accident of seating played the whole piece with a bright spotlight squarely on his face).

No less a feature of the evening was the lavish acoustic response of St Philip’s Lutheran Church. This was especially the case for the low instruments. I kept looking around for amplifiers.

That effect was underscored by a pesante-footed reading of the Overture on Hebrew Themes by Prokofiev that opened the evening. This 10-minute piece features a prominent clarinet, with piano and strings—originally a sextet for former students of the composer—that was premiered in New York in 1920. It’s a tasty tableau that goes through several changes of mood and character. And it showed just how happy Anderson’s band is to be back in business after a long and otherwise quite strange—politically, criminally and climatically—summer.