Monterey Symphony

By Scott MacClelland

BUT FOR THE FLYING DUTCHMAN OVERTURE and a tsunami washing the orchestra out to sea depicted on the program handout cover, the Monterey Symphony’s “Sound Waves” season came to a close in Carmel in what could be described as a traditional ‘meat and potatoes’ menu. Following the Wagner were Chopin’s Piano Concerto in F Minor and Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.

Music director Max Bragado-Darman conducted the overture and the symphony from memory, interpretive ideas in mind but with existential spontaneity. The Wagner overture is constructed from themes in the opera itself—a common practice at that time and ours as well in American musical theater—principally the stormy oceanic image associated with the title character, the ‘ballad’ sung by the legend-besotted heroine Senta who is willing to die for him and the sailors’ exuberant chorus sung on returning home after weeks at sea. (Alicia Matromonaco’s program note rightly characterized the underlying theme of ‘redemption through love’ in this case, though that driving force applies no less to all of Wagner’s mature operas.) The opening storm scene was especially thrilling as the large orchestra on stage blared its swirling maelstrom.

Tall, head-shaved and with large hands, Cuban pianist Marcos Madrigal took the stage with a showman’s swagger and delivered in kind for Chopin’s first of two concertos—composed at age 19 but published after the later and more popular Concerto in E Minor, Op 11. Madrigal presented a clear interpretive concept of the piece but consistently blurred its clarity by his heavy use of the sustain pedal. What should have sparkled instead muddied, especially in the alto-tenor midrange of the fine Steinway grand. The heart of the 35-minute piece is its slow middle movement which provided a glimpse into the mature composer’s acute sensitivity to harmonic possibilities, an essential component of ‘romantic’ 19th century music. (In that respect, Chopin channeled JS Bach, a Baroque ‘romantic.’)

Nevertheless, the audience went wild over Madrigal’s flamboyance and were rewarded by a silly Cracker Jack candied-corn encore of the “Largo al factotum” from Rossini’s Barber. (Why any artist of serious purpose would spend time memorizing such schlock suggests a never-outgrown childish need for approval, or at least attention.)

Bragado’s take of the Beethoven was expansive—36 minutes—mirroring the great German conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler in the early 1950s. (The equally great Italian conductor Arturo Toscanini tried to get it done in 20 minutes.) I vote for Bragado; I’ve heard the piece dozens of times, live and on recordings, yet on Saturday night at Sunset Center I discovered details, especially in the winds, I had not previously taken into account. Some of them gave me goosebumps.

When the orchestra assembled after the intermission, the cellos and double basses did not soon appear. It seems the principal cellist had broken a string and needed time to install a new one and to let it quit stretching before the concert could safely resume.  

Madrigal didn’t elevate Chopin beyond himself. For me, the Wagner and Beethoven linger vividly, the Chopin and Rossini forgettable.

Monterey County Composers’ Forum

By Scott MacClelland

SUNDAY’S MONTEREY COUNTY COMPOSERS’ FORUM concert at Hidden Valley was a lot of things. Or maybe different things to different people, an eclectic introduction to new music titled “Winds of Change” that was heavy-laden with flutes and flute music. It ran the gamut from 1960s style folk music to a blues-based jazz band to an arpeggio-favoring song cycle for soprano and marimba. Of the 11 composers represented two were new, an 8th grader from King City named Hannah Ettinger and a retired percussionist called Douglas Ovens.

No, I’m not making this up even if looks that way.

As is his calling, violinist/music educator Steve Ettinger took the lead as Master of Ceremonies. (He recently composed a ballet score, The Nightingale, (click HERE)  https://performingartsmontereybay.com/the-nightingale/  that premiered last month at King City and produced a concert suite which the Monterey Pops! Orchestra will perform during the July 4th events in Monterey.)

Flutist Julie Roseman and guitarist Paula Kaiser opened the show with their ‘60s-style musings, flower-like, gentle and loving, but more challenging than laid back, a reminiscence of when we were idealistic flower children. Mary Lesher joined for her own Guitars, Not Guns, her theme song of the local anti-gang chapter established by Monterey County Assessor and all-around good guy Steve Vagnini.    

Inspired by Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, Hannah Ettinger’s Snowmane’s Lemon Tree, played by her violinist father and flutist Jillian Kling, proved to be a tunefully charming etude. 

David Price’s Three Pieces for Flute Duet brought together well-known jazz flutist Kenny Stahl with Roseman, he on soprano and alto, she on soprano, for “The Moth and the Butterfly,” “Mating Call of the Last Kilawee” and “Flutes in the Forest,” like-sounding pastoral charmers where the two instruments traded roles between melody and accompanist.

Carleton Macy’s Summer Wind, with the composer playing alto recorder and amped guitarist Anthony DeMers didn’t achieve the impact Macy sought. It began quietly, rose to a climax (like an offshore Santa Ana wind from the great basin) and ended quietly. The amplification was the distracting culprit.

George Peterson’s 8-minute Labyrinth, the aforementioned blues, certainly amped up the volume, and opened spaces for improvisation, especially for guitarist Malcolm Smith who had memorized his part, but was almost too complex for my ears to sort out. Keyboardist Peterson was joined by bassist Noah Reeves and drummer Jim Coulson.

Dana Abbott’s three-movement, 8-minute Petite Suite for two flutes, with Stahl and flutist Leslie Foote, took techniques from JS Bach in its three movements titled “Etude chromatique,” “Melodie” and “Danse.” Abbott later expressed some dissatisfaction with the premiere, but I found it some of the most interesting music on the program and certainly worthy of another hearing.

Rick Yramategui’s In the Wind of the Meadows tortured Kenny Stahl with three minutes of what the composer described as “doing everything not to do” to Stahl “for the last 50 years.” He justified it by citing a line from a Rilke poem and his own need to stretch himself as a composer. Whether it succeeded remains to be heard, but Stahl blew more wind than tone, as I assume was the composer’s intent. I think the hoped-for overtones didn’t quite fulfill the promise.

Yramatagui then took to the piano for the classically made, theme driven, busy third movement of Dale Victorine’s Cello Sonata in A, with cellist Nona Childress working hard to pull it off.

Finally, Ovens’ song cycle brought forward local treasure Leberta Lorál (pictured with the composer) for Yours and Mine, three song settings of sensually provocative poems by Alice Fulton. Ovens, a Walla Walla native who retired from the faculty of Muhlenberg College in Pennsylvania a year ago, and a marimba player of intense harmonic instincts, pushed Lorál through some awkward voice leading that stretched her range and, as he confessed enthusiastically, made his work easy.

I’m not sure the MCCP is a truly coherent enterprise, but as adventures go this rises to the occasion.