By Scott MacClelland
AN ENTHUSIASTIC turnout for the opening concert of Ensemble Monterey’s 2015-16 season filled St. Philip’s Lutheran in Carmel Valley Saturday night to hear a short but concentrated program for strings—that also added winds for a Haydn piano concerto. It was an odd mix of small and large in the acoustically generous church.
The largest and most ambitious piece was the late violist/conductor Rudolf Barshai’s expansion for string orchestra—specifically his own Moscow Chamber Orchestra—of Shostakovich’s eighth string quartet, the most popular and harrowing of that composer’s fifteen such works. The MCO was a larger ensemble, and, frankly, more articulate than the 10 strings of Ensemble Monterey. It’s a tricky tradeoff; a crack string quartet can unleash more intensity and achieve a greater impact with the composer’s original version. However, these players under conductor John Anderson brought the piece into increasing focus as the performance unfolded.
Shostakovich concocted a musical monogram from the letters of his initials—in German musical notation, DSCH: D, E-flat, C, B—and totally saturated this quartet with it, far more so than in any of the others of his works that extol it. Composed in 1960 in just three days in a state of grief and soul-bearing while in Dresden, a city destroyed as an act of vengeance against the German Nazis by Allied bombers at the end of World War 2. (Still new he heard it played just for him by the acclaimed Borodin Quartet and is said to have broken down in tears.) In the Allegro molto movement of the 21-minute piece a passage of hair-raising Jewish klezmer music explodes in rage, a device Shostakovich, ever the humanist activist-at-peril, recycled from the last movement of his piano trio Opus 67 of 1944, but with even greater vehemence.
Shostakovich remains a towering figure among 20th century composers and deserves much more exposure here than he has gotten since Oleg Kovalenko conducted the Santa Cruz Symphony in a volcanic eruption of his Fifth Symphony at Cocoanut Grove in the 1970s. (Yes, those who were there and are still living remember that event.)
By comparison, the rest of Anderson’s program was slighter fare. Pianist Lucy Faridany (right), one of the Monterey Bay’s musical treasures, sparkled in Joseph Haydn’s Concerto in D, the composer’s best known of his many concertos and most exposed in concerts and on recordings. (When it came to concertos and operas, Haydn admittedly demurred to his much younger friend, Mozart.) Twenty minutes of charm culminated in the final Rondo all’ungherese, a classical form flavored with paprika.
The concert’s opening ten-minute Changing of Seasons by John Wineglass, from early in his career, followed the old conventional rules of historically different style periods. The final 12-minute Suite for Strings by John Rutter fell in with the English pastoral tradition of Butterworth, Holst and Vaughan Williams, those early 20th century nostalgic arrangements of old folksongs.