SINCE ARRIVING in Carmel Valley from his native Scotland some 35 years ago, conductor Stewart Robertson has achieved an international reputation. But when a large crowd of locals filled the Hidden Valley Theater Friday night, many of them had little or no knowledge of Robertson’s triumphs in the larger world. Conducting the first of his two last public concerts—the second was Saturday in Aptos— Robertson is best known locally for two reasons: he was the founding music director/conductor of Youth Music Monterey (at that time called Youth Orchestra of the Monterey Peninsula) and the many opera collaborations with designer/director Robert Darling that he conducted at Hidden Valley, most recently including La bohème, Gift of the Magi and Don Giovanni.
Friday’s performance was also bittersweet. Most of us already knew that Parkinson’s disease had forced Robertson’s retirement from his longtime music directorship of Florida’s Atlantic Classical Orchestra, announced only a couple of months ago. (Plans are in place for him to return this winter to make studio recordings of ACO’s several original commissions.)
Complicit in this program for 15 string instruments was Roy Malan, lately retired founding concertmaster of the San Francisco Ballet Orchestra, lecturer at UC Santa Cruz and longtime Robertson collaborator. For the occasion, Malan assembled a surpassing ensemble that gave Robertson every subtle response he asked for. Art and music happened together.
Included in the program were Edward Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro, Mozart’s String Quintet, K 406 (with two violas), Josef Suk’s Serenade for Strings in E-flat and Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings. The Suk serenade of 1892 was a regional premiere. (Added on was another Barber setting, described below.)
The popular Elgar piece, in form a quasi concerto grosso, illustrates the composer’s unique mastery of sequencing, the repetition of a short melodic or rhythmic phrase up or down the scale. The technique had actually been losing its appeal with composers at the time it was composed in 1905. Somehow, Elgar made it seem like an endangered species and took a stand, magically allowing its thematic fragments to drift away, including a digressive fugal episode, only to bring them back with deftness and panache. Plainly Robertson got the game and made sure of it.
With Malan leading the charge, the Mozart quintet, a transcribed reduction from the earlier Octet for Winds, K 388, strutted its C-Minor tonality with macho bravura. The third movement, minuet in canon, shows the composer’s instinctive mastery of counterpoint by the age of 26; as instructed, the second viola sat out the trio section. The final allegro served up variations on a tune that sounded like it might have come from folksong or opera buffa.
Two or three years before his death, Johannes Brahms was so taken with Suk’s Serenade that he bestowed his approval of it to his publisher, Simrock. The story goes that Suk was inspired by his budding love for Otilie, a daughter of his teacher, Antonín Dvořák. The work stands apart for its originality of style, form and warmth of character. The lovely adagio third movement lulled with muted strings, lulling some in the audience to nod off. Yet it was here, about two thirds through, that Dvořák’s influence made its most obvious appearance.
Was it my longtime personal friendship with Robertson or his gorgeous balancing of the textures and phrasing of Barber’s Adagio for Strings that brought a tear to my eyes? Probably both. Malan’s hand-picked ensemble was flawless.
At the program conclusion, and to honor Robertson, Hidden Valley’s Peter Meckel recited words from Ecclesiastes, then introduced a specially-commissioned Steve Tosh arrangement of Barber’s setting to music of James Agee’s Sure on this shining night. The veteran vocal quartet were Laura Anderson, Lisa Chavez, Christopher Bengochea and Chris Filipowicz. The conductor was Mark Schaull.
Everyone stayed for the reception.