Monterey Symphony

By Scott MacClelland

WITH GUEST CONDUCTOR Jung-Ho Pak on the podium, the Monterey Symphony went deeper under water than ever before in its current “Sound Waves” season. Heard Sunday afternoon in Carmel, the first half of Pak’s program was not for those with weak bladder control. Not only did it venture beneath the sea but actually delivered on stage a bunch of large transparent bowls full of water and three percussionists splashing quite merrily in them with hands and instruments. This was Tan Dun’s Water Concerto of 1998.

The artist who created the solo, the New York Philharmonic’s percussion principal, Christopher Lamb, came to Carmel to give it its regional premiere. (He talks about it with illustrations in the above video.) More on that in a moment.

Pak opened the concert with Alan Hovhaness’ And God Created Great Whales, a short work (13 minutes) for large orchestra that weaves in the songs of humpback whales, perhaps the most ‘singing’ animals of all. The composer—who once told me that if he had known the piece would become so popular he “would have composed it better”—uses a variety of quite thrilling effects, not least Asian pentatonic scales, theatrical trombone glissandos and abrupt changes of mood. As if to underscore the piece, Pak chose to add a short video by nature-photographer Feo Pitcairn of humpbacks, orcas, porpoises and even sperm whales cavorting in their natural environment. The potential conflict between audio (music) and video only resolved in favor of greater urgency. (Dearest Alan; no revision required.)

Hovhaness’ Great Whales was premiered in 1970, well before we knew what today’s scientists and oceanographers know about climate change and the degradation of the oceans. To that end, Pak invited John Ryan of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) to the stage for a short interview about oceanic pollution, specifically noise pollution that, because it travels faster and much farther in water than in air, disorients marine life that depends on sonic communications for everything from feeding to reproduction. 

That set up the next piece, Stella Sung’s Oceana, a personally forceful tone poem in crystal clear musical language of unequivocal defiance against the industrial, commercial and military sonic ‘abuses’ of life in the oceans. Of the music, there could be no doubt. Yet that was utterly reinforced by a video, made after the fact but with equal aggression, by Annie Crawley, obviously dialed in to the same. Images of whales, fish, underwater explosions, vast tracts of floating oceanic garbage and plastics and both wildlife and human life suffering the consequences. The point was clear. 

Percussion and water may not ordinarily go together in concert works. The Cabrillo Festival has included numerous percussion concertos over the decades, including premieres, that tend in favor of bang and crash. Not so here where delicacy and color were the prevailing currency.

Tan Dun—well known composer of the operas Marco Polo and The First Emperor, and the film score for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon—envisioned his concerto in three movements, misterioso, animato and agitato. After light began to slowly glow in the darkened theater, Lamb made his entrance down the aisle bowing on a waterphone before taking his central place on the stage. The array of instruments for his use made a dazzling visual impression; most were clear plastic played upon with moving lights. Thankfully for those of us who try to keep track, each was separated by large solos (and trios that included the other water players) during which the orchestra fell silent. These solo moments magnified focus on Lamb and what he was doing, popping stopped tubes upon the water in the bowls—walking on water, so to speak—or sloshing about with associated instruments, including bowed waterphones (pictured) and small gongs struck while being dipped in and out of the water. Even a Slinky chimed in.

At times the orchestra held sway, “speaking Chinese” as Pak had predicted. The variety of effects and color of Tan Dun’s score was riotous. In the last movement, Lamb carried another clear plastic tube containing water and shook it in the manner of an Australian rainstick as he circled to the back of the orchestra and played on orchestra bells laid out like a xylophone. In the closing moments the brass players made noises through their disconnected mouthpieces, while the wind players did likewise with their reeds, sounding like a gathering of birds and insects. As this fully animated scene drew to its final climax, the entire stage went black. Theatrical? You bet!   

Pak, who used no baton, conducted Shostakovich’s irreverent Ninth Symphony from score, though it was quite obvious that he had long since memorized it in detail. Indeed, he gave the audience a conducting lesson from the podium, a pleasure to watch him connecting the dots so vividly and purposefully. Shostakovich felt especially bullied by party-boss Josef Stalin, and not a little paranoid. But he also took on the mantle of the fool at court, the only one the dictator (historically, the tsar) could trust, not afraid to speak truth to power. But Shostakovich inevitably hedged his musical ‘truth’ in ambiguities. It is this that fascinates and exasperates the armchair psychologists who have tried to analyze the contradictions in his music that range from terror to resignation, from raging ridicule to hope in the face of hopelessness.

At the end of the day, however, it is not about Stalin, but about Shostakovich. The Ninth Symphony contains it all. In 27 short minutes it surveys the full range of human conflict and contradiction. Under Pak’s leadership, all the details popped out: The wicked piccolo that mocked the authoritarian two-note trombone fist in the first movement; the second movement with its disingenuous sadness; the third’s snarky scherzo. The fourth movement, largo, growls in the low brass with Wagnerian menace, punctuated by mournful solos high on the bassoon, possibly the truest lament over the supposedly triumphant defeat of Nazi forces at the end of World War II, only to lapse into wit and, ultimately, circus music. Shostakovich had long since burned out on the Soviet artist’s job of “rejoicing.”

With his guest shot, Pak put a decidedly new face on the Monterey Symphony. Nothing on his program had ever been heard here before yet everything won over the audience. His commentaries with the MBARI guest and a Chinese speaking cellist from the orchestra who illustrated the rising and falling inflections on the word “ma” by way of introducing the Tan Dun piece felt altogether genuine. Should he return to conduct the Monterey Symphony I think he would be warmly welcomed by those in his Carmel audiences.