Monterey Symphony opens season

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Orion Weiss, right, with mentor Emanuel Ax

By Scott MacClelland

IN THE DARK JUST BEFORE DAWN the winter constellation Orion can be seen directly overhead. It is the grandest stellar display in the night sky, looming over all the others in its scope and enormity, unchanging to terrestrial viewers for countless millennia.

Its namesake, Orion Weiss, who soloed in Tchaikovsky’s odd but immensely popular Piano Concerto in B-flat Minor, is anything but unchanging. His performance Sunday afternoon in Carmel with the Monterey Symphony sounded like a search for some new way to discover unexplored facets of expression in a piece notorious for its overexposure on the concert stage, radio and recordings.

And so it went, Weiss going his way much of the time and conductor Max Bragado Darman sticking with his obligation to steer the less wieldy orchestral score around the capricious whims of the soloist. This is not a complaint, but an observation that underscores a friction inherent to a concerto of grandly romantic ambition and proportions. And, after all, the invitation is wide open.

For his part, Weiss indulged a beguiling range of impulsive phrasing, sometimes idiosyncratic and too heavy on the pedal to clarify the composer’s keyboard textures. Yet, in the opening movement, Weiss rejected banging bombast in favor of ‘pressing’ sonorities from the keys, a most welcome choice.

The second movement lullaby sets up a still-controversial trope. The flute’s opening four notes are A-flat–E-flat–F–A-flat, while each reiteration of this motif, starting on the piano and working its way through the orchestra, substitutes the F for a (higher) B-flat. As the king of Siam would say, “Is a puzzlement.” (You can still find recordings that ‘correct’ this discrepancy.)

Weiss’ performance drew a standing ovation and an encore, one of those little Debussy enchantresses.

Back to work, Bragado took on Dvořák’s Symphony “From the New World,” a work of greater substance than many of its fans truly appreciate. Of course, it’s a pot-boiler, a ‘warhorse,’ a pops concert favorite. But it’s also a masterpiece of invention and economy. Who could have anticipated a third theme—based on “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”—that would set the transition from the first movement repeat directly into its development?

Yet in the scheme of things, it is not held in as high regard as the composer’s Seventh Symphony, in D Minor, a work often compared with the symphonies of Brahms. A closer look reveals how adroitly Dvořák recycled thematic material from the first movement into the third, and, like a great actor, his efforts remain in character and spirit throughout the 50-minute work. But the piece is too listener-friendly, insufficiently challenging to be heard as often as it is in concert and, worse, on classical radio. Of all the fine cameo solos in the score, the most memorable is the cor anglais’ “Goin’ Home” in the second movement, here hauntingly played by Ruth Stuart Burroughs.

For its November concert pair, the Symphony will be joined by 30 members of Youth Music Monterey County’s Honors Orchestra, “side by side” with the pros. YMMC’s orchestras and ensembles and conductor Farkhad Khudyev will appear at Sunset Center one week earlier with their own “Freedom’s Expression” program, featuring violin prodigy Nicholas Brady.