By Scott MacClelland
MONTEREY SYMPHONY music director Max Bragado-Darman produced a fiery Italian guest conductor for his “Romeo & Juliet” program on the weekend. Without a featured soloist, the concert focused on Bruno Aprea, this season’s only podium substitute, with sizzling results for orchestra and audience alike.
It can’t be easy for a locally unknown guest conductor to carry an entire concert on his shoulders. But were it an audition, Aprea, a veteran of his art, scored high marks all around in a program that ranged from a Verdi opera overture to Leonard Bernstein’s complex Symphonic Dances from West Side Story, and, in between, Romeo & Juliet music by Tchaikovsky and Berlioz. None of this was a walk in a Veronese park but under Aprea’s baton it all jumped from the Sunset Center stage with vivid and memorable impact on Sunday afternoon.
A palpably fresh breeze murmured in the orchestra. Bragado is a Spaniard of aristocratic bearing and elegant restraint. Aprea works up a sweat. I thought the real test would be the concert-concluding Bernstein, rife as it is with Latino rhythms and in-your-face Hell’s Kitchen attitude. Aprea and the large orchestra—spilling into the wings—powered through the 25-minute score with confidence. Nothing in the brilliant Irwin Kostal/Sid Ramin orchestration fazed a band far more used to tamer fare. (By the way, the program booklet made a point of introducing, by name and instrument, the orchestra’s 12 new members.)
Aprea opened the program with the overture from Verdi’s opera La forza del destino, a pasticcio composed, after the fact, of tunes and themes from the opera. As such, they are introduced in a sequence of discrete bits, then later in combinations with one another, energy piling up under Aprea’s stick.
Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet, a programmatic tone poem structured according to classical sonata form, got a fine reading here. Framed by wind chorales, its two main events are the violent confrontation between the Capulet and Montague adolescents and the soaring love music (which did become a duet in the only scene from an unfinished opera.) When the love music first appeared, Aprea played it tenderly, naïvely. It came round again with more intensity and then on the full orchestra, accounting for its reputation as one of the first symphonic examples of erotic music.
The second half opened with two scenes from Hector Berlioz’ Roméo et Juliette “dramatic symphony.” Like the Tchaikovsky, its elements are programmatic, only much less beholden to classical architecture—but then, Berlioz invented 19th century program music. (In his orchestral music and opera it was the only kind he composed.) The piece was premiered more than 30 years earlier than the Tchaikovsky, and in full takes 96 minutes to perform. The two movements on this concert—“Love scene” and “Romeo alone”—lasted 33 minutes, roughly half of that time divided between them. They, in turn, are further subdivided. The “Love scene”—which actually follows “Romeo alone” in the original—is set in the deserted Capulet garden, then it turns its attention to the young Capulets singing bits from the party that has just ended. “Romeo alone” begins with his sorrow, then two melodic phrases, the first, Romeo, the second, Juliet. (Wagner, who called Berlioz “devilishly clever,” stole them and with the slightest adjustment, turned them into his Tristan and Isolde themes.) Soon, we hear hints of the main theme of the Capulet ball, then a surging theme on the orchestra, a momentary full stop, and the Capulet ball itself in full glory, the Romeo and Juliet themes blaring through.
Confused? It takes either a strong memory of reading the details of the ‘program’ or an outline in your hands. In the dark auditorium, the latter choice is a non-starter. Still there is unprecedented genius in this mercurial music which, in its time, was as avant-garde as you could get. Bravos to Aprea and the orchestra for tackling it and pulling it off as well as they did, though some in the audience seemed more mystified than enlightened. Isn’t it always thus with the avant-garde of any era?
The Monterey Symphony will announce its 2017-18 season soon. We’ll have the details in our Weekly Magazine.