Ensemble Monterey, March 14

By Scott MacClelland

ENSEMBLE MONTEREY’s 2014-15 “Season of Premieres” has set an important precedent that I hope will continue. Classical music in many areas of the country is slumping. (Click HERE to read “painful” audience feedback to the Pittsburgh Symphony.) Exposure to the unfamiliar, by contrast, seems to be gaining ground. Stephen Tosh’s Piano Quintet that opened the program, with Steve at the keyboard, was composed in 2002 and premiered then by Ensemble Monterey. Its musical forms and rhetoric are classical, its language tonal. But nary a measure goes by that does not sparkle and pop with his joyful discoveries of the possible. It has been my great pleasure to have known musicians with that gift—to invent on the fly once engaged, whether in jazz or classical music. Indeed, keyboard composers like Tosh and Henry Mollicone and jazz artists like Bob Phillips all speak the same language with often-breathtaking fluency.

This 20-minute piece, in four movements, also showed different facets of Tosh’s personality. It would be bold and strongly theme-based in the sonata-form first movement, broadly expansive in the largo (which in its later moments seemed to have borrowed textures from Benjamin Britten), to a steeplechase scherzando and a rondo alla Russe finale that harkened back to late romantic Russians without ever actually quoting any of them. (Having lost a foot to complications of diabetes, Tosh played on a Yamaha keyboard, explaining to me that he was no longer able to manage the pedals of a real piano, and admitting that the sound was less than ideal.)

Then came a string quartet of Youth Music Monterey high schoolers to play the first and last movements from the “American” String Quartet by Antonín Dvořák, the unmistakable companion to his “New World” Symphony. These young musicians, Jonathan Vu, Steve Yoo, Kim Kissler and Ari Friedman, performed with confidence and artistic clarity, qualities that string players of greater experience could only admire. The rare off-note was swallowed up in their nuanced and vivid interpretation. The full audience at St. Philip’s Church in Carmel Valley stood to ‘give it up’ for this impressive display.

Conductor John Anderson then stepped in for the remainder of the program of works by Lou Harrison and Charles Ives. Anderson and his orchestra performed Harrison’s Seven Pastorales in the late ‘90s at which time the composer provided spoken Lou Harrison by Eva Soltesintroductions to each of the movements. Fortunately, his comments were recorded and, here, played back from that tape. Each of the seven was dedicated to important figures in the late composer’s life, two to artist/author Remy Charlip, a prothalamion for the wedding of Ellie and David Decker, and one each for conductor Fritz Rikko, composer/mycologist John Cage, and his mother and brother. The pieces ranged from exuberant to circumspect in magical arrangements for strings, harp, winds, and selected brass. The Rikko pastorale used the full orchestra robustly. The Cage pastorale featured chamber music for winds and string drones. The ‘mother’ pastorale was ecstatic, and the last one, for his brother, the longest by far, used only strings. Anderson took the work at a relatively leisurely pace. The playing was first-rate.

Though composed at the turn of the 20th century, Ives’ Third Symphony “The Camp Meeting” was not heard until Lou Harrison conducted its premiere in 1947. It went on to ives by george tylerwin the Pulitzer Prize the following year. (When he heard about it, Ives snorted “Prizes are for boys!”) The program notes included many complaints about his music in the early years of that century from people whom Ives otherwise respected, including close friends and musicians. (One said, “That first one was bad enough, but these are awful.”) Today it seems fairly mild, but still very much original. As with many of Ives’ pieces, it makes abundant use of folksongs and hymn tunes, some of which crash into each other. The short symphony—20 minutes—consists of three movements titled Old Folks Gatherin’, Children’s Day and Communion. It was the last of them where Brahms, Ives’ teacher’s favorite composer, showed through, especially for its counterpoint and string textures. Again, nicely done.

Harrison photo by Eva Soltes; Ives photo by George Tyler