By Scott MacClelland
Probably the finest orchestral performance of the current season, Daniel Stewart and his Santa Cruz Symphony knocked three balls right out of the park Sunday afternoon at Watsonville’s Mello Center. (KUSP 88.9 recorded it for broadcast on Feb 21, 8pm.) While I am not impressed by conductors who conduct without a score in front of them—things can go off the rails without a Plan B recovery—Stewart and his musicians sustained full attention to the task at hand. Mahler’s Wayfarer Songs, Wagner’s Tristan Prelude & Liebestod and the concert suite from Prokofiev’s Romeo & Juliet were sensitively detailed and deeply expressive. Nothing distracted from Stewart’s finely wrought realizations, and the sold out house was caught up in the enchantment.
Focus of the Mahler was the young Metropolitan baritone Yunpeng Wang, who was coached on his interpretation by none other than James Levine—and it showed. Despite vibrant projection, this is not yet a distinctively recognizable voice—the singer is just 25—but he gave Mahler’s heartbroken words and music intensity of anguish. Stewart is also young (in his early 30s), a veteran of the Metropolitan Opera and protégé of Levine. Clearly, both singer and conductor were on the same trajectory, Stewart as attentive to the words as Yunpeng Wang, his orchestra angrily bewailing the “knife in my breast” or weeping funereal sighs as the tragic hero recalls his lover’s blue eyes. (This highly personal music—Mahler called himself an “exile of love”—would reappear in the his First Symphony.)
The prelude and final scene from Tristan und Isolde distill and condense the entire three and half hour music drama—Wilhelm Furtwangler’s lasted four and a quarter hours—into less than 20 minutes by using the power of the leitmotifs (short thematic ‘symbols’) that give the tale its musical coherency. (In the path from the first to the second chord of the prelude, we meet both Tristan and Isolde.) As such, this music must be shaped and balanced, paced and phrased to impart the inevitable character of fatal attraction. More than any other piece on the program it has to cast a spell; with Stewart conjuring, it altogether did. He took a bit longer than usual and used phrase and balance to such thrilling effect that at the climax of the Liebestod I had grown goose bumps.
Still, the best was yet to come, or rather the most preternatural. The Romeo suite is chock full of quicksilver changes of character and extreme challenges of balance and dynamics, especially in the fight scene (Death of Tybalt) which saw the Santa Cruz Symphony rise to an unprecedented brilliance of execution. The audience was gobsmacked; you could hear the gasps of people starting to breathe again. Yet the entire suite, like the Tristan performance before it, enscribed the arc of the Shakespearean tragedy as the composer most certainly had envisioned it. The narrative unfolded, from one movement to the next, with an inexorable force of doom. Maestro Daniel Stewart has shown how great an orchestra like the Santa Cruz Symphony can be. Clearly, he’s the real deal. What must we do to keep him happy to be here?
This program called for the largest orchestra of a season which, like other regional orchestras, must budget accordingly. (The next SC Symphony concert, March 22 and 23, will require far fewer musicians.) The short program—75 minutes of music—felt like a full meal, thanks to its polish, clarity and overall intensity. From his opening remarks Stewart’s enthusiasm spilleth over. Yet they were redundant, given Don Adkins’ excellent program notes that, without being at all pedantic, make the experience relevant and immediate, sometimes even urgent. (I read them with both pleasure and appreciation; for me they are ‘continuing education.’)
Santa Cruz County should take increased pride and give increased support. Whether it’s the geography or the weather or the people I cannot say. But the quality of great music here is almost beyond belief.