Monterey Symphony

By Scott MacClelland

MAX BRAGADO-DARMAN has made it clear that his last season as Monterey Symphony music director will showcase works—many that are found infrequently in concert programs—that he believes deserve to be heard. Case in point, Sunday’s performance at Sunset Center of Mozart’s last piano concerto and Brahms’ first. The soloist in both was Kun Woo Paik, a smart choice and an enlightened artist.  

If you look at or listen to the four concertos by Johannes Brahms—two for piano, one for violin and one for violin and cello—you will find certain unsolved technical problems in all of them. Notwithstanding, Brahms’ First Piano Concerto, in D Minor, retains its dominance as the greatest of the four. At 25 minutes, the massive first movement begins with a majestic but ominous orchestral introduction, with pounding timpani and angry trills on the strings, that would have become the beginning of the composer’s first symphony. (The official First Symphony, in C Minor, starts in similar fashion, but without trills.)

Brahms had begun the piece when he was 21 as a sonata for two pianos following the rapid decline of his mentor, Robert Schumann. But the substance of his music exceeded the capacity of its conception, hence its move to a nascent symphony and then its definitive form as a concerto. And what a concerto! Indeed, a reinvention of the concept.

The first movement, following the symphonic introduction, traces the outline of the classical sonata, providing the soloist’s entry with the standard repeat of exposition. Here, Kun Woo Paik began what would be a highly personal take on the work’s palette of ideas. This trope, obviously worked out with Bragado in advance, took on a whole different persona with the introduction of the lyrical second theme, in which both pianist and conductor conveyed some of the most memorable moments of the performance. In particular, Bragado shaped and molded the winds with a delicate touch and phrasing sensitive to dynamic shadings. Yet, for their common purpose, a few moments drifted out of sync between them.

The second movement, Adagio, was Brahms’ loving portrait of by then the recently widowed Clara Schumann. It was conceived on devotional, even ecclesiastical, terms by the composer and acknowledged as such by its subject. The Hungarian-flavored final rondo, which owes a debt to the corresponding movement of Beethoven’s Concerto in C Minor, introduces a brief and entirely unexpected fugue for the orchestra alone about halfway through. In both the first and, especially, last movements the pianist got big solos. The movement gathered increasing propulsion as the performance closed in on its climactic conclusion, 50 minutes after it began. Solos among the winds and brass deserve credit, as do passages played by the concertmaster and principal of the second violins.

The stage at Sunset Theater was so packed that the first desk of the first violins played with their backs to the audience just to accommodate the space required for piano and soloist. This was equally true for the opening Mozart Concerto in B-flat, the composer’s last. Some have remarked that the work is tinged with resignation. I don’t hear that, though there are fleeting moments where a shadow crosses the image. And for what it’s worth, Mozart, having lost both parents and several of his own children in infancy, was already on record as not fearing death, but describing it as a friend. In a way, this concerto, like his Die Zauberflöte, is a summation, a lyrical serenity.

Conductor and soloist embraced the first movement and the middle Larghetto in relaxed and generous terms. No storm or stress ruffled the piece or its performance. Mozart frequently deceives the listener into believing that all he needed to do was turn on the tap and let the music flow of its own accord. This is one of those pieces; it masks the effort he needed to work his magic. Mostly, I believe the choice by Bragado was fully intentional. Not as popular as many of the composer’s earlier concertos, this was a welcome opportunity to bond with the elderly—at age 35—Mozart.

The final movement begins with a characteristic rondo theme, but in fact it is in sonata form, complete with fully worked out development section. As the late William Malloch observed, “Brahms must have known and loved this last movement. At the point the orchestra rounds out the exposition, we can hear a clear anticipation of the sportive opening rondo tune from the finale of Brahms’ own Second Piano Concerto.” Malloch added, “It is no surprise that Brahms’ Second is also in B-flat.”




Ensemble Monterey

By Dana Abbott

ENSEMBLE MONTEREY opened its November program, “Songs for Winter,” with local oboist Peter Lemberg (pictured) performing the Oboe Quartet by James Chaudoir along with string players David Dally, Susan Brown and Margie Dally. The piece is built on astringent melodic fragments that resist resolving in a traditional manner. This was a score from a modern academic. In four movements, composed in the 1990s, its main interest comes from tempo and rhythm rather than varied harmony and tune. Lemberg was in full control of his part. 

The modern, wispy melodic figures and tart harmony used by Chaudoir are similar to those of Samuel Barber’s 1931 setting of Matthew Arnold’s poem, Dover Beach, for baritone and string quartet. But Barber integrates and develops his materials in support of a more ambitious goal. (He was s a student at the time, and the piece was revised several times before its premier in 1933.) Barber later called the poem, “one of the few Victorian poems which continues to hold its stature; it is a great poem.” The soloist was Burr Cochran Phillips. His singing was clear with fine tone and superb enunciation in projecting text. His collaboration with the quartet, now with second violinist Shannon D’Antonio, was seamless and focused, fully realizing the intended chamber music intensity. Arnold’s image of a personal pursuit of center hold in a world that has “neither joy, nor love, nor light nor certitude, nor peace nor help for pain,” was captured in the controlled turbulence of Barber’s writing. The audience reacted warmly to this emotional center of the concert, a moment where a vivid text, an intense and evocative setting and powerful performance convinced many in the room that they were in the presence of a multifaceted masterpiece.

Vittorio Rieti was born in Egypt of Jewish-Italian parentage, later resulting in his emigration to the United States as the ominous 1930s became the 1940s. He studied under Casella and Respighi. His music is consistently neo-classical, which seems to have enjoyed a brief popularity post-World War I and a quick passing from the limelight.  Rieti’s Partita for harpsichord, flute, oboe and string quartet dates from 1945. Its layout is traditional with five movements The music has recognizable themes, often with contrapuntal development and notes chasing each other about with drama and structure. Conductor John Anderson led the ensemble. This piece had charm, with modern tartness, moments of inventive tune and even humor. Vittorio Rieti is not in the first rank of popular concert composers yet this Partita displayed capable invention.

The inventive program, heard in Monterey, opened with three pieces written after 1930. It proceeded in reverse chronological order with the music of Handel from the 1700s with one short exception. From the beginning, a variety of styles and performers were in the “spotlight,” as Anderson put it.

Choral conductor Cheryl Anderson opened after intermission utilizing only Con Brio, a select group of teenage singers from her Cabrillo College Youth Chorus. Handel’s “O Lovely Peace” for female voices was performed well.

 “Art Thou Troubled,” also by Handel, was performed SATB with the whole mixed chorus. Marta Keen’s Homeward Bound, a choral folk song features a heart-tugging lyric. Leah Zumberge supported the group at piano. 

The final work was Handel’s “Laudate pueri Dominum,” from Psalm 113. (The program handout said Psalm 112.)  Written in 1707 by the young German composer who moved to Italy seeking opportunity for opera commissions at a time when opera was banned in Rome. Romans still wanted vocal drama and Handel responded to demand for the large scale with this impressive oratorio on Latin text. Lori Schulman, Santa Cruz coloratura soprano, was the soloist, spinning out Handel’s copious melismas with fluid clarity and exquisite phrasing. Anderson’s chamber musicians provided a strong foundation. Zumberge was the harpsichordist and partnered often with Margie Dally on cello in continuo. Cheryl Anderson’s Cantiamo Cabrillo delivered the dramatic chorus work with sonorous accuracy. Handel divided the psalm into eight sections, a veritable catalogue of Italian musical forms for each. As an achievement of a 22-year-old, the piece is stunning, a precursor of wonders to come.  

The program order had made its point. It started with modern, sometimes austere musical materials but ended with the warm choral display and harmony of an 18th century master which retains its richness for modern ears.