By Scott MacClelland
YOU HEAR IT OVER AND OVER. The subscribers and patrons of Ensemble Monterey echo a similar theme: we come to hear new music. They don’t necessarily mean ‘new’ music so much as music that is new to them. They mean music that nobody else in the Monterey Bay area plays, including music from past generations. It’s all well and good to introduce new music, as the Cabrillo Festival does by its dedication to only living composers. But Ensemble Monterey patrons, like me, are truly tired of hearing the same old same old offered by classical radio stations and satellite transmissions.
Ensemble Monterey served up its second seasonal cuisine, “Winds of the Exotic,” on Saturday at St Philip’s Church in Carmel Valley. A sold-out house heard instrumental music never before performed in this area, by composers Charles Gounod, Lyn Murray, Carlos Chávez and Reynaldo Hahn (portrait by Lucie Lambert, 1907).
While the orchestra promised and delivered a feast of music for wind instruments, it was also joined by substantial percussion, piano, and one each double bass and harp in two different works. In addition, the 22-member Stevenson School Chamber Singers and their conductor, Willow Manspeaker, enriched the program’s first half with four numbers from their upcoming holiday school concert in Pebble Beach. (The EM program repeated on Sunday in Santa Cruz with Il Dolce Suono, a student-directed choir from Cabrillo College.)
Gounod’s 23-minute Petite Symphonie, which was composed for nine winds, got a fleshed-out reading here that filled the resonant church with rich sonority. The piece could easily be subtitled Pastoral or Bucolic, a sunny outdoor audio picnic that suggests sheep and shepherds, yet is constructed on classical forms. Lars Johannesson took the big flute solo in the andante cantabile second movement, which was followed by a ‘hunting’ scherzo, in 6/8 meter, with a stentorian preface on loud horns and included a B-section ‘trio.’
The Stevenson singers came next with Mozart’s Ave verum corpus and Handel’s “Hallelujah” from Messiah framing Ledbetter’s Bring Me Little Water, Sylvie and Fleet Foxes from the White Winter Hymnal, both of which used body percussion (including stamping and clapping) and, unlike the Mozart and Handel, did indeed swing.
Conductor John Anderson remarked on his realization of Lyn Murray’s Ronald Searle Suite, an 11-movement, 17-minute parade of short bits composed to accompany a Searle-animated film about energy sponsored by Standard Oil in the 1950s. This is where double bass, piano and percussion stepped in. Absent the film, EM board president Art Schuller announced each movement with amusing cheek and charm. The next-to-last, “The Age of Gasoline,” was pure jazz.
Next came Xochipilli, imaginary Aztec music by Carlos Chávez, the preeminent Mexican composer of the 20th century. Six minutes of percussion dominated rhythms, and exotic effects that included rattles and a howling conch shell.
Finally, Reynaldo Hahn’s charming Le bal de Béatrice d’Este that, despite its French title, is the composer’s imaginary 1905 visit to the late 15th century court of the Duchy of Milan after Beatrice married Duke Ludovico Sforza. Here Hahn was at the forefront of the then-new fascination among European composers to return to earlier roots, the so-called neo-classical and neo-baroque conceits that flourished in the early and middle 20th century. The seven-movement suite, in the French style, consists of delicious short dances of hybrid antique/modern character. The fourth, “Ibérienne,” strutted with Spanish affectations. On a chilly night in Carmel Valley its warmth was welcomed by all.