By Scott MacClelland
I’VE GOT TO give Danny Stewart an A for pitting Beethoven’s only violin concerto against a Lou Harrison piece that very few in the audience would have known and Sinfonia by Stewart himself that no one here, outside of the musicians during rehearsals, had ever heard.
Classical orchestras these days are doing a lot better with adventuresome programming. The 775-seat Mello Center audience stayed full up, even after the program order was switched to allow violinist Youjin Lee to leave early to catch a flight to Japan. (By contrast, the Monterey Symphony audience for the Tchaikovsky violin concerto and Sibelius’ Fifth Symphony, failed to fill Sunset Center’s 718-seats on Saturday and shed a noticeable share of that audience at the interval, before the Sibelius.)
At this time, I often hear from longtime senior-citizen music lovers of classical music—the ‘white hair’ crowd—complaining about programs that recycle the over-exposed 19th century ‘Romantic’ orchestral fare. That also includes orchestral musicians, many of whom have taken ‘early retirement’ in order to seek opportunities to hear and learn new or unfamiliar music. Who, I have to ask, is telling orchestra music directors to keep playing the same stuff you hear on classical radio day after day, week in and week out? Such radio does not honor the great classical canon but instead diminishes it to background music.
At 19, Youjin Lee is certainly on the road to a big career. The Klein Competition winner had a lot of notes to play, most at high speed, and navigated them with polish and flair. Most memorable was the interplay between soloist and winds in the slow movement of the Beethoven. The piece itself does not offer much opportunity for exploring soulful depths. I hope to hear her play a concerto by Prokofiev or Shostakovich in the future. Stewart maintained fine control of the orchestra and was keenly responsive to his guest artist.
Lou Harrison’s 30-minute seven-movement Pacifika Rondo was a treat that engaged the entire audience. It’s a major work that adds to the traditional orchestra a body of exotic percussion, piri (Korean double reed), sheng (Chinese mouth organ),—pictured below—fipple flutes, kayageum (relative of the koto), organ and celesta. What a feast of sounds! The first, third, fifth and seventh movements are all built on a similar platform and engage nearly all the musicians. The even-numbered movements select a more intimate ensemble. The festive opening, and its subsequent reiterations, painted images of Korean and Japanese court life. Chinese-style chamber music made for a vivid contrast. The first of the latter is titled A Play of Dolphins—who are “people who have language and use their very large brains to invent elaborate and good-natured games,” says Harrison. “Psalteries suggests the movement of waves and the dancing of dolphins.” Lotus gives the impression of a grand Buddhist temple. In Sequoia’s Shade hints at when California was a Spanish colony. The dramatic fifth movement, Netzahualcoyotl Builds a Pyramid, pays homage to Cesar Chavez. The sixth, Hatred of the Filthy Bomb, stands apart from the others. The final movement, From the Dragon Pool, recalls elements from the first, and adds some shouts from the players. From the look of it, Stewart must have loved mastering and performing the piece. The audience responded with sustained applause.
Stewart’s own Sinfonia, composed in 2010, was about as eclectic in style as an orchestral piece can be. Rhythmically challenging, it, like the Harrison, drew smiles from the musicians. The first movement, Fantasia, was just that, a freely unfolding of fleeting imagery, from the mysterious to the eruptive. (That title gives the composer free reign, implicitly a departure from classical forms, which makes it hard to remember in detail.) Scherzo is “rondo-like” and certainly playful until a lyrical subject emerges only to become the thematic main event of the final Serenade, signaled by the interval of the rising fourth, in a lushly cinematic display that at last whips into a cataclysmic dance, a “catharsis” Stewart calls it. The piece is very craftily made, at times bewildering, with hinted allusions to other well-known composers, and certainly entertaining. At this point, however, it does not reveal the composer’s individual voice. But, hey, there’s still plenty of time ahead for this talented young man.