By Scott MacClelland
IF YOU WEREN’T at Watsonville’s Mello Center on Sunday, you missed the mother of all Mother’s Day concerts. In the most sensational regional orchestra concert I have heard in my four decades as a resident here, Daniel Stewart and the Santa Cruz Symphony finished his second season spectacularly. Carl Orff’s one-hour “scenic” cantata, Carmina Burana, dominated the event, but smaller-scale bits made indelible impressions as well. And certainly the theatrical touches enhanced the experience all round.
To be fair, the orchestras of Marin Alsop’s Cabrillo Festival and Paul Goodwin’s Bach Festival are both performing at world-class levels. But for the Santa Cruz orchestra, operating with less than half of the Monterey Symphony’s budget, this performance not only raised the bar to a new level, but vaulted over it as well.
Stewart’s magnetism is palpable. With one or two exceptions so far in his young tenure in Santa Cruz, he is otherwise entirely on his game and communicates it vividly to musicians and audiences alike. He conducted Orff’s masterpiece from memory, both words and music. By letting his soloists take their leads, he always made it sound spontaneous. He loved Cheryl Anderson’s 80-member Cabrillo Symphonic Chorus and it—they—she—reciprocated.
As an overture, the program began with the March for the Ceremony of the Turks by Jean-Baptiste Lully, Italian-born composer favored by Louis XIV in the 17th century. Lully and the great playwright Molière concocted Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme—by definition a societal non-sequitur—that amused Louis’ hangers-on. (It would live on with enchanting results in works for stage and concert hall by 20th century composer Richard Strauss.) As the march repeated itself several times, the choristers, festively costumed like peasants and wandering monks, came down the aisles greeting audience members and sprinkling rose petals on them. The motley crowd included about 30 children. That brilliant entrance instantly lifted all spirits.
With the entire concert dedicated to the memory of Jane Orzel, two of the soloists, soprano Nadine Sierra and countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo, sang the duet “Io t’abbraccio” from the opera Rodelinda by Handel. This was no last minute addition, but an exquisitely polished performance that inspired many in the audience to offer the first standing ovation.
Anderson then conducted her chorus in Tomás Luis de Victoria’s irresistible O magnum mysterium.
Carmina Burana may be the most performed work in Santa Cruz Symphony history. But it never made a greater impact than on this occasion. What makes it so distinctive is Orff’s use of vocal and instrumental staccato, much pizzicato on the strings, and percussion, including two pianos. The soprano aria “In trutina” (and its later echoes) stands apart from all else as the legato melodic exception. John Moore established himself with a rich, robust baritone delivered with theatrical flair. Costanzo navigated the pitiable lament of the roasted swan, with Moore following as the swaggering Abbot of Cockaigne, in the tavern. Sierra, statuesque and wrapped tightly in gold lame, sang beautifully. Late in the performance, on two occasions, the 30 children and teens were gathered next to her, and Moore opposite, at the edge of the stage. Coached by Anderson, their singing from memory was spot on, in pitch and rhythm. The youngest of them appeared to be no older than five. While waiting their turn, they stood in rapt attention if not amazement at the soloists. At the end, the audience cheered, whistled and shouted its approval in a lengthy and well-deserved standing ovation. They’ll be talking about this Mother’s Day for a long time to come.