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.