Monterey Symphony

By Scott MacClelland

CAPTAIN MAX BRAGADO-DARMAN set his Monterey Symphony to sea Sunday afternoon with the ultimate salutation of his current season in a program totally dedicated to his ocean-themed penultimate season in Monterey. This was as bold a program as he has steered in his fifteen years as Monterey Symphony music director: all 20th century music, with no concerto soloist, opening with the virtually atonal Oceanides by the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius, followed immediately by the anxious, unnerving Sea Interludes from Benjamin Britten’s tragic opera Peter Grimes.

In rondo form and nominally in D Major, the Sibelius tone poem, inspired by the Oceanids—mythic water nymphs of ancient Greece—is only atonal because its two musical ideas compete, including rhythmically, effectively blurring both the harmony and the pulse. The piece was commissioned by Horatio Parker—Charles Ives’ composition teacher at Yale—on behalf of the Norfolk Festival in Connecticut and was first performed there in 1914 with the composer conducting. Its name went through as many changes as its music, perhaps more. Its Finnish name, Aallottaret, (nymphs of the waves) came into the composer’s mind by way of the Finnish national oral-tradition mythological epic, Kalevala, that had inspired so much of his earlier music. He used the German, Rondeau der Wellen, then Die Okeaniden, the latter finally translated into English as The Oceanides, which has spawned no shortage of mispronunciations. This was its Monterey Bay premiere.

Britten’s interludes, used for precisely that purpose in the opera, effectively conveyed the underlying conflict between the title character, a violent misfit fisherman within his community in Suffolk. (Above, the art piece on the beach at Aldeburgh that honors the opera’s setting.) Britten’s operatic heroes are all misfits within their circumstances and his music is underscored with distress. By the same token, it comes with power, and this reading proved it.

At the interval, the audience talk was sharply divided.       

Things took a turn for the brighter with Jacques Ibert’s pictographic Escales (Ports of Call) of 1922. Its tour from Rome to Palermo, hence to Tunis and the oasis town of Nefta, and finally to Valencia, splashes color all over the orchestra, from the mysterious and exotic to the exhilarating. After a wild week of weather, and despite turning cold outside, the music was radiant with sunshine.

Claude Debussy’s La mer clinched the deal with its vivacious textures and frothy delights. In an age when the formal outlines of the classical symphony were coming unglued, and subtitled Three Symphonic Sketches, the piece might well have been called a Sea Symphony. Despite blurred tonalities and conflicting ideas, however, it retains a logical propulsion from one movement to the next. The final ‘Dialogue of the Wind and the Sea, surging with yearning for some climactic resolution–stopped in its tracks by some ringing cellphone in the audience requiring a restart–was achieved thrillingly and, at last, brought the audience to its feet.

The orchestra hadn’t been together for three months and some rough seams showed. But Bragado’s wide-ranging variety of choices and podium authority carried the day.       

Tempest Trio

By Don Adkins

THE TEMPEST TRIO played to a nearly sold-out audience at Peace United Church in Santa Cruz on Saturday night. The concert, the fifth of the Distinguished Artists Concert and Lecture Series, featured Beethoven’s Trio Op. 97 “Archduke” and Mendelssohn’s Trio No. 1 Op. 49. The Tempest Trio members: Alon Goldstein, piano, Ilya Kaler, violin and Amit Peled, cello, are three top-quality players with international solo performing careers. They have toured and recorded together for the past ten years and came to Santa Cruz because Goldstein is co-director of Distinguished Artists.

There was no doubt throughout the entire concert that all three are consummate artists and, just as important, have worked together extensively. The essential details of good music-making such as phrasing, dynamics, tempo changes and rubato, gave evidence of the time and effort the three have spent together. The question and answer session after the concert confirmed another reason for this musical unity: they actually enjoy each other’s company—not always a given with professional chamber groups. That does not mean that there weren’t moments when things did not perfectly mesh, but this is a comment made by this reviewer who was listening with a hyper-critical ear and pen to the paper. The concert was full of spectacular music-making and deserved the audience’s enthusiastic response.

The beginning of the famous “Archduke” immediately revealed a few issues that were beyond the players’ control. Peace United Church is problematic as a concert venue because of both poor sightlines and spotty acoustics. Several people I spoke to could only see one or two of the musicians and the concertgoer’s location in the audience greatly affected the balance of the instruments. The violin was easily audible to many seated on the left-hand side and almost inaudible to many seated on the right-hand side. The piano was also more dominant on the right than on the left. The cello managed to always be heard above Beethoven’s piano part but the violin did not fare as well. This was especially evident in the first and fourth movements.

It brings up another issue which, again, is outside of the players’ control. The Beethoven trio was written for a type of piano which was not nearly as powerful as our modern concert grands. The balance issues on Saturday night probably would not have existed if a replica of his available instrument had been used. That leads to the question: what can be done about it when the modern piano is used? One possible answer is to short-stick the piano lid, not raised to its full height.

Every piano player in the world would complain about this. How can you minimize such a glorious instrument by dampening its sound? This became especially apparent where modifying the tone of the piano would have made am important difference in the extended pizzicato section in the first movement of the Beethoven. The piano had a less bright sound and the violin was, therefore, heard by the right-hand side of the audience with no difficulty.

The Mendelssohn trio did not have as many balance issues due, in large part, to the fact that Mendelssohn was writing for a type of piano that comes closer to our modern-day version. The piano part is constructed so that the strings are often placed in gaps not covered by the keyboard. The Mendelssohn is one of my favorite piano trios when I am in the mood for great Romantic period music. The Tempest Trio played this piece with just the right amount of nuance to make the music sing without becoming maudlin. The tempo of the third-movement Scherzo began a touch too fast but soon relaxed just a bit. The fourth movement featured the evening’s best example of a long-arching melody played with just the right amount of ensemble interpretation. The question and answer session at the end of the concert gave the trio a chance to interact with the audience and brought the evening to a satisfying end.