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.