Santa Cruz Symphony, March 26

By Scott MacClelland

THE SMATTERING of empty seats at Watsonville’s Mello Center on Sunday was doubly a shame since Daniel Stewart and the strings of his Santa Cruz Symphony gave one of their best shows of the current season. I don’t remember when this ensemble of violins, violas, cello and basses sounded better, most stunningly in the expanded arrangement by Gustav Mahler of Franz Schubert’s great “Death and the Maiden” D Minor String Quartet. Honestly, I was skeptical that this immensely powerful original would actually gain from being enlarged to a full string orchestra. And I might have been right but for Stewart’s commitment to and skill in preserving the character of the string quartet itself and modulating the dynamics accordingly. Likewise the musicians’ response to his subtle phrasing and molding of the nearly 45-minute score that is notorious for undoing less than the most-seasoned ensembles who take it on. The range of dynamics ran from fortissimo to pianissimo, back and forth, as well as the ‘mezzos’ in between.

Credit to Mahler for respecting Schubert’s scale of sound. For example, the fourth variation on the “Death and the Maiden” theme in the second movement—from a song Schubert had composed years earlier—was preserved in its original form, allowing concertmaster Nigel Armstrong to take the lead unencumbered in his fanciful dancing atop the underlying harmonies, with softly seductive mute in place. Indeed, Mahler often called for the use of mutes adding, in effect, another level of tenderness sandwiched in among the other degrees of loud/soft, AKA ‘forte’ and ‘piano.’

Stewart opened the program with Arvo Pärt’s Fratres in the string orchestra version. The 11-minute piece starts and ends pianissimo but builds to a fully sonorous climax about two-thirds the way through. In this version—one of many the composer made—drum and woodblock added small bits of punctuation. The title of the now-40-year-old piece refers to brothers in a monastery. Personally, I prefer the version for violin and piano. But it was a fine choice for this program and probably introduced Pärt to local audiences—even though he was once a guest composer at the Cabrillo Festival and whose large corpus of works have been performed and recorded for decades.

Oliver-HerbertThe other welcome surprise here was cellist Oliver Herbert, winner of the 2015 Irving Klein International String Competition. Fortuitously, Herbert, like the Klein itself, is a product of the SF Bay Area, and though not yet 20, he put on a display of virtuosity and artistry that stunned the house. His chosen vehicle was the D Major concerto of 1783 by Joseph Haydn. (As scored, two oboes and two horns joined the string orchestra.) I don’t recall a performance given with such fire and absolute mastery of the instrument. And did I mention artistry? This young man is already a fully formed musical personality ready to take on the world. Obviously he and Stewart had worked out an interpretation that was good for both, yet even so Herbert continually found miniscule spaces to change the pace or flavor a phrase to his own lights. His control of dynamics was a wonder to behold. He already understands what many musicians never learn: when you have the audience on your side you can play softer and softer and still pull them further in.

After the concert, Herbert told me he was heading directly to Chicago to play chamber music. And I lately found out that he has been selected for the Verbier Festival Orchestra in Switzerland this summer. That is a big deal; the Verbier is one of the world’s most prestigious festivals and attracts the top classical musicians from everywhere. It will give Herbert a great ensemble experience, but ultimately he is a soloist’s soloist, a star aborning.

Having gone after Stewart for beginning his concerts with long-winded, ill-prepared speeches, mainly about his own enthusiasm, I must applaud him for Sunday’s opening remarks. Instead of puff, they were all about useful information, specifically details of the 2017-18 season. (See Tuesday’s WEEKLY MAGAZINE.) Next season’s Klein Competition winner, from 2016, is contrabassist William Langlie-Miletich, a first for the Klein and a chance to hear a virtually unknown concerto by 19th century virtuoso Giovanni Bottesini. As Klein Competition chief Mitchell Sardou Klein told me earlier today, “You can imagine how impressive he had to be to top all the violinists, violists and cellists. He is remarkable.”