Harpist Madeline Jarzembak

By Scott MacClelland

THERE’S SOME SPECIAL KIND OF COMRADERY among musicians in Santa Cruz that is palpable. It is generally friendly and collegial, and quite different from the more severe, even suspicious, among many of the classical music players in Monterey County. Give it up for the ‘sunny side of the bay.’

That was easy to do on Sunday when the Santa Cruz Symphony launched its new “Spotlight on the Symphony” recital series at the marvelous Cabrillo Samper Recital Hall in Aptos. There have been some excellent recitals by Symphony musicians in recent years, now formalized as distinct from the long established orchestral series. On Sunday, the spotlight fell on principal harpist Madeline Jarzembak, who played a solo recital for the first half of her program and was then joined by violinist Rebecca Jackson and cellist Jonah Kim (above) for the second.  

During the interval, Jarzembak, who bears a striking resemblance to the film actor Reese Witherspoon, stepped to a microphone to thank the audience for coming, explain that playing the harp in public was more terrifying to her than public speaking, describe her “bigger than me” instrument’s 47 strings and 7 pedals, and warn that when a harp approaches the end of its life the high string tension can cause the soundboard to “explode”—though she was pretty sure that wouldn’t happen at her matinee performance. (It didn’t.)

For the solo set, Jarzembak began with Sarabanda e Toccata by Nino Rota, a fine and prolific concert composer who is best known for his film scores for Fellini and Visconti. What became obvious right away was the range of colors and dynamics under Jarzembak’s polished technique. The biggest surprise was the closing Vltava (Moldau) by Smetana in an arrangement by Hanuš Trneček—he called it a fantasy—that inexplicably omitted the dancing wedding party scene of Smetana’s original pictorial tone poem. Between these two works was an arrangement of Haydn’s Piano Sonata in C, Hob XVI-35 and Movements and Pauses by Israeli (born Lithuanian) composer of operas and concert works, Haim Permont; that piece was plainly idiomatic to the instrument though barely memorable. 

With Jackson and Kim, Jarzembak played an arrangement of a three-movement Trio in G for baryton, viola and cello by Haydn. (But for Haydn’s baryton trios, the obscure 17th-18th century instrument would today be completely forgotten except by revivalists of ‘early’ music; it was a hybrid of the bass viol (da gamba) and bandora with an extra course of sympathetic (non-played) vibrating strings favored, notably, by Haydn’s patron Nicholas I, Prince Esterhazy.) In this case, the baryton part was transcribed for harp with the other instruments providing a harmonic context.

Then came the pièce de resistance, Jacques Ibert’s Trio, of 1944. No hint of the war perturbs this charmer. Its first movement, Allegro tranquillo, actually surges to a final climax in the ecstatic style of that giant influence on later French composers, César Franck. The second movement, Andante sostenuto, opens with a gorgeous, long-limbed melody for cello, then picked up by violin, while the harp plays accompaniment. The high-spirited Scherzando con moto opens with a pizzicato contest between violin and cello. Finally the three instruments are on equal footing, each getting its share of the spotlight.     

The next Spotlight on the Symphony recital features a brass quintet, Brass Over Bridges, also at Cabrillo Samper, on November 11. American music will be featured.

Cellist Amit Peled

By Scott MacClelland

JOHANNES BRAHMS, the late 19th century German composer, is enjoying a great September in Santa Cruz, even though, in this year of notable anniversaries—100th of Leonard Bernstein’s birth and death of Debussy—neither obtains to Brahms. Yet Brahms represents the first two programs in John Orlando’s Distinguished Artists Series and the first program in the Santa Cruz Chamber Players 2018-19 season. Orlando’s season began last week emphasizing the outsized 1733 Matteo Goffriller cello once owned and played by the great Pau Casals as much as the talented Amit Peled who plays it now. (Ironically, Casals, who acquired the instrument in 1913, played on it for fifty years before discovering then that it was actually crafted by Goffriller.)  

Faced with a choice between basketball and music, the 6 foot 5 inch Israeli-born Peled now teaches at the Peabody Institute while simultaneously pursuing an international performing career. His program in Santa Cruz was devoted to Brahms’ two cello sonatas, each about a half hour in performance. Pianist Noreen Polera, who has cultivated a reputation for the cello literature and has partnered a long list of eminent cellists, joined Peled with the Yamaha piano’s lid fully opened. That might not bode well for many but the Goffriller in Peled’s hand delivered a powerful voice that almost overwhelmed the piano. I knew the sound and timbre of the instrument from Casals’ recordings but never imagined its booming authority until now.

With a flat floor, and despite a riser for the cellist, Peace United does not provide favorable sightlines. From the fourth row during the Sonata in E Minor, Op. 38, seeing the artist through bobbing and craning heads proved challenging. Choosing a seat in the back of the room for the Sonata in F, Op. 99, was a no-brainer. Much better, in fact, since I was able to sit directly opposite Peled down the open aisle of the church. Not only was every detail of his motion and emotion clearly on display, but the instrument itself seemed to speak directly to me, by which I mean its voice and articulation seemed remarkably directional. I was completely seduced. (My other favorite cello is the “Duport” Strad that belonged to Mstislav Rostropovich but, sadly, is no longer appearing anywhere on the concert stage.)     

At the start of the second half of his concert, Peled explained that the F Major Sonata was composed around the same time as the Third Symphony and, given its ambition and scale, could be called an “extra” Brahms symphony. He could easily have said the same about the earlier sonata, whose first movement, at 15 minutes alone, is massive and complex. These two works blur the line between chamber and symphonic music. A feature of the earlier three-movement sonata is its fugal final movement. The second four-movement sonata contains numerous pizzicato passages on the cello.

Peled won standing ovations from an audience of 300 after each of the sonatas and ended his program with an arrangement of Brahms’ famous lullaby.

On the last day of this month the great American pianist Garrick Ohlsson will offer the second program of the Distinguished Artists season with all-Brahms piano program that includes the four Ballades, the Eight Pieces, Op. 76, and three sets of variations.