By Scott MacClelland
INVENTING AMERICA was the theme and title of the Santa Cruz Symphony’s season opener, heard Sunday at Watsonville’s Mello Center. Conductor Daniel Stewart’s program opened with a deliberately- paced performance of Aaron Copland’s Fanfare for The Common Man in a splendid display by the orchestra brass and percussion, designed around the potently rising G-A-G arpeggio. (Compare to the opening fanfare of Strauss’ Also sprach Zarathustra: the B-flat, F, B-flat arpeggio, where the smaller of the two intervals is between the F and upper B-flat, opposite from the Copland.) The concert concluded with Antonín Dvořák’s celebrated “New World” Symphony, the one place where things went slightly awry.
After the Copland came a woozy three-minute piece for strings, El Sinaloense, composed by Severiano Briseño for the Kronos Quartet and arranged for string orchestra by Osvaldo Golijov. The wooziness, dispensed primarily by the violins, represented the drunken Man from Sinaloa, who had obviously been hanging in the company of mariachi, the strings delivering a commendable imitation of Mexican trumpets and guitars.
But without a doubt the biggest hit of the day was Jon Nakamatsu’s piano performance with the orchestra of Gershwin’s irresistible Rhapsody in Blue. I have heard it played badly by performers clueless as to its distinctive style. But this time the audience could scarcely stay in their seats and, at its conclusion, totally went nuts with enthusiasm. Still, today, the small jazz band orchestration by Ferde Grofé shines through his symphonic version that long ago eclipsed the original. More to critical point, Nakamatsu totally made the piece his own and different from any others I’ve heard play it. (What has always amazed me about Nakamatsu is how a man of such slight physical stature can power up with such muscle when the music demands it.)
Of all the tools in a conductor’s kit, balancing the different orchestral voices is one of the most critical, especially when the music on offer is harmonic, i.e., there is almost always a main event that relegates the others to a subordinate role. This balancing act equally demands control of dynamics, the contrast between different levels of loudness. As opposed to counterpoint, the “New World” remains primarily harmonic. That puts the onus of balance and dynamics back on the conductor who must assure that the primary event, at any moment, stands clear from the subordinate. While not glaringly, this balance got turned upside down on some occasions. These are a conductor’s choices, on purpose or by accident, but certainly with accountability. The orchestra sounded excellent and, overall, the performance was well-paced and enveloping, its marvelous themes and architecture radiant and memorable.
The audience applauded between movements, which doesn’t bother me. But if I were the conductor I would ignore it until the end and keep my full attention instead on my considered vision of the piece.