HE MAY NOT BE the most graceful of public speakers, but Daniel Stewart otherwise is a huge musical talent. His concert with the Santa Cruz Symphony, heard Sunday at the Mello in Watsonville, drew a sold-out house to hear him in three different roles: conductor, performing violist and composer.
His Social Media, a 10-minute orchestral/electronica world premiere, sought, as he explained from the podium, to represent life fractured between every and all possible distractions. Fortunately, it fell into definable categories, the better to hold it in memory. Electronica, managed by pianist Jason Sherbundy and projected through loudspeakers, boomed out the opening moments with percussive ‘shock and awe.’ But that effect soon subsided in favor of the orchestra, which grew even quieter into a string tremolo episode that seemed to whisper ‘enough already.’ (Who among us couldn’t relate?) Then, as it began, it rose up again and just as suddenly vanished. It may have been a flash in the pan but smackingly.
The audience also came to witness a contrabass virtuoso, now-21-year-old William Langlie-Miletich, a Seattleite who won the 2016 Klein International String Competition, the first bassist in its history to do so. He showed up in a blue shirt, sleeves rolled up to the elbow, as to make clear he was going to work. And he most certainly punched the clock. He had already performed Bottesini’s Concerto in B Minor, which helped win him the Klein trophy and has carried him forward since on many occasions and in many venues.
Who knew a concerto for contrabass could carry such personality and flair? Obviously, Bottesini, who was a natural-born showman in the manner of Paganini. (He was born in 1821, when Paganini was at the peak of his career.) Bottesini was also a well-known conductor who premiered Verdi’s Aida in Cairo in 1871. According to Don Adkins’ program note, Bottesini set up and tuned his own contrabass uniquely to magnify its projection. The instrument itself is descended from the viol family—the ‘bass’ of the violins is the violone, now only heard in Baroque music—with its distinctive sloping shoulders. To play it, Langlie-Miletich wrapped himself around his instrument. Bottesini exploited its highest register—even beyond the end of the fingerboard—and punctuated it with menacing growls from the lowest of its low. This was flawlessly executed; one patron was heard to remark that his performance had no “bumps in the road.” The first and last movements made way for coloratura cadenzas and the strings of the orchestra used mutes for the second movement. These carefully planned features assured that the solo instrument could be heard clearly throughout the hall. Sustained applause produced a single encore, a jazz improvisation played pizzicato.
Following the intermission was Lou Harrison’s suite from Marriage at the Eiffel Tower, composed for the Santa Cruz Symphony in 1961, a 13-minute, seven-movement charm that paid cheeky homage to French composers of the first half of the 20th century. Its Overture was wittily syncopated, its languid Wedding March drew out a string quartet. Its Speech by the General featured a solo trumpet and resembled bits from Stravinsky’s l’Histoire du Soldat. Its Blues for the Trouville Bathing Beauty was a piano solo by the aforementioned Sherbundy.
The concert opened with a brisk reading of Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro overture. It closed with his Sinfonia Concertante for Violin and Viola, K364, that greatest of all Mozart’s violin “concertos.” Here, Stewart was the viola and his bride of just over a year, In Sun Jang, was the violin. (It looked for a moment as if they were about to get into a marital spat over adjusting her music stand.)
The work itself is nothing if not an operatic love scene, especially in the long Andante second movement, which culminates in a lengthy cadenza for the two instruments. (Stewart conducted the orchestra and played his part all from memory.) The first movement, which serves up perhaps the finest example of the legendary Mannheim Rocket, also ends with a cadenza. The final presto, which Stewart took at a relaxed pace, is a modified rondo. The performance was transcendental and brought a standing O and cheers from the audience.
In his remarks from the stage, Stewart outlined the Symphony’s 2018-19 season. Noah Bendix-Balgley’s Fidl-Fantazye “klezmer” concerto will open the season next to Mahler’s 4th Symphony. The second concert serves up Mozart’s Symphony No. 39, Tchaikovsky’s Rococo Variations with the 2017 Klein winner, cellist Jeremy Tai, plus a new work by John Wineglass. Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring joins Gershwin’s An American in Paris for the third concert. Jonah Kim will play the Dvořák Cello Concerto in the fourth program which also contains Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances. The season will conclude with Beethoven’s Mass in C and a major choral work by Esa-Pekka Salonen.