By Scott MacClelland
OPENING A NEW SEASON of chamber orchestra literature with a program titled “Wally the Beard” had to be some kind of crazy gamble. At least it demanded an explanation. That came in the form of a pre-concert talk by Ensemble Monterey’s artistic director/conductor John Anderson and a program note by Peter Lemberg, the orchestra’s oboist. Somewhere between the lines, the two of them agreed to resurrect an obscure score by Bernard Herrmann composed for an episode of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, a short-lived television series from the 1960s. (The show famously displayed Hitch’s self-sketch to the musical strains of Gounod’s Funeral March of a Marionette.) Finding Herrmann had generously flattered the oboe, Lemberg transcribed the entire score from a recording of the original telecast. Despite the risk of featuring such an obscurity, a goodly audience—a little less than their usual full house on Saturday in lower Carmel Valley—came to discover the reason behind this choice.
For the occasion, a narrator, Ken Cusson (more or less impersonating Hitchcock), established the context of a comedic murder mystery about loser Walter Mills who, with a fake beard and moustache, turns himself into the dashing yachtsman Philip Marshall. A bit less than half of the 33-minute performance went to the narration; the rest engaged an orchestra of 12 musicians—flute, oboe, harp and strings—who revealed the estimable skills of composer Herrmann. The music, obviously not intended for life after Hitchcock, was thematically based, adroitly crafted and included a couple of external references, not least, at the outset, the famous Gounod funeral march. If this excursion proved anything it was the distinctive value of Herrmann’s music. I hope Ensemble Monterey will dig up even more of it in future.
The Nonet in F by Franz Lachner, a Bavarian contemporary and friend of the Austrian composer Franz Schubert, is now and will probably remain his greatest work on the international scene. Scored for traditional wind quintet and a quartet of strings, it fits most comfortably within the genre of Viennese classical serenades and divertimentos of a generation earlier but here—as with Schubert’s “Trout” Quintet—raised to a new and more urbane order of chamber music. Yes, in the right time and place, a touch of genius can turn a sow’s ear into a silk purse.
The 45-minute score is deployed along the lines of a four-movement classical symphony. A generous introduction opens into a broadly ambitious allegro moderato first movement. This was followed by a menuetto and trio, an adagio and final allegro. Overall the most impressive feature was the parade of concertante cameo solos on violin (concertmaster David Dally had his fingers full frequently), clarinet (Erica Horn), oboe (Lemberg), flute (Lars Johannesson), bassoon (Gail Selburn) and horn (John Orzel, who, by an accident of seating played the whole piece with a bright spotlight squarely on his face).
No less a feature of the evening was the lavish acoustic response of St Philip’s Lutheran Church. This was especially the case for the low instruments. I kept looking around for amplifiers.
That effect was underscored by a pesante-footed reading of the Overture on Hebrew Themes by Prokofiev that opened the evening. This 10-minute piece features a prominent clarinet, with piano and strings—originally a sextet for former students of the composer—that was premiered in New York in 1920. It’s a tasty tableau that goes through several changes of mood and character. And it showed just how happy Anderson’s band is to be back in business after a long and otherwise quite strange—politically, criminally and climatically—summer.