Santa Cruz Symphony, May 8

By Susanne Mentzer

THE SANTA CRUZ SYMPHONY gave their final concert of the regular season to a sold-out house on Mother’s Day at the Mello Center for the Performing Arts in Watsonville.

As this reviewer’s first experience at both the venue and this orchestra, I was pleasantly surprised. I can understand why the organization has thrived for 58 seasons. There is an evident loyal audience. It was also nice to see young people there for this event.

Often Beethoven’s majestic Ninth Symphony is a standalone work. However, Maestro Daniel Stewart has made it his mission to program less-familiar works on the same concerts with more standard repertory.

The first albeit brief work on the program was the tone poem NYX, of 2011, by Esa-Pekka Salonen. Nyx is a Greek goddess sometimes thought of as a murky figure but also producing day and light. Salonen is well-known as a conductor, for two decades the former music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Finland-born Salonen is quite a composer; as a horn player he employs the use of his instrument in his music. I have heard only one other piece of his and, both now and then, I was struck by the tone of emotional storytelling. As I heard one audience member say, “I was smiling all during the work and only opened my eyes about half way through.”

Salonen’s NYX is filled with waves of strings and uses vibraphone, celeste, chimes as well as other percussion, and harp. It starts simply with intimate horns that grow into a full-blown storm of music. The colors that the composer gets from the orchestration are truly amazing. The work ends as subtly as it begins but this time with quiet unison strings and a last minute, almost afterthought flourish of whimsical winds. Kudos to Karen Sremac for her mastery on the clarinet which has much to say in this composer’s language. The work asks much of the low brass and winds as well, and they stepped up to the plate. The strength of the SC Symphony strings was most impressive.

The Ninth Symphony, composed in 1824, is considered standard fare but is by no means a small undertaking. The work requires a large orchestra, four vocal soloists and a full chorus. In this case, anticipation among the audience was palpable. Conductor Stewart spoke beforehand of Beethoven’s expressive potential in us all and mentioned that the work premiered 192 years ago this weekend.

There are three major movements in the work before the soloists and chorus appear for the famous “Ode to Joy”. The Santa Cruz Symphony players did well in spite of a few slight ensemble glitches between the brass, winds and the others. This could be an issue of the space and not hearing each other well, but also might be due to some rather fast tempi throughout. More could also have been made of the pauses that Beethoven so strategically placed. The trumpets were spot-on throughout. The four soloists, young artists from the Metropolitan Opera, entered before the third movement and were placed in front of the orchestra and conductor. This was rather unorthodox in that they are usually placed to either side of the conductor’s podium for musical coordination. (Speaking of placement, each conductor has his or her favorite layout of the instruments. Stewart had the contrabass and cello sections to his left and percussion to his right. I had not seen this set up before except in opera.)

The fourth movement was what the audience was waiting for. The text is taken from a poem by Friedrich Schiller, “An die Freude”. The lower strings were quite wJohannes Ifkovitsonderful in the initial recitativo section and seamless in the unison theme of the famous “Ode.” Bass-baritone Shenyang (pictured), singing without a score, directed his words and lush sound as if including us all in his message and inviting us to take heed. Tenor Kang Wang was clear and effortless in his short but notoriously challenging solo, “Frohe Frohe.” Mezzo-soprano Avery Amereau cut through well with her very lovely voice in a part that can be so thankless. Soprano Michelle Bradley soared beautifully above the rest. The solo quartet’s role is very brief but challenging due to the range that is packed into such brevity. The four had to part in the center and angle towards the maestro at one point. This was a tad awkward but necessary due to where they were placed.

The Cabrillo Symphonic Chorus, prepared by music director Cheryl Anderson, sang with much gusto and from memory. This listener would have liked more sopranos to balance out the sound.

I must note, as well, that Daniel Stewart conducted the entire concert without a score.

The Ninth is the kind of piece that never grows old. The main tune of the final movement is now the anthem of the European Union. Many remember the performance led by Leonard Bernstein after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Indeed it leaves the audience with a sense of possibility. As Schiller writes, “All people become brothers.” Appropriately the audience in Watsonville jumped to their feet at the end and gave the day a standing ovation.

Photo by Johannes Ifkovits