Monterey Symphony

By Scott MacClelland

BUT FOR THE FLYING DUTCHMAN OVERTURE and a tsunami washing the orchestra out to sea depicted on the program handout cover, the Monterey Symphony’s “Sound Waves” season came to a close in Carmel in what could be described as a traditional ‘meat and potatoes’ menu. Following the Wagner were Chopin’s Piano Concerto in F Minor and Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.

Music director Max Bragado-Darman conducted the overture and the symphony from memory, interpretive ideas in mind but with existential spontaneity. The Wagner overture is constructed from themes in the opera itself—a common practice at that time and ours as well in American musical theater—principally the stormy oceanic image associated with the title character, the ‘ballad’ sung by the legend-besotted heroine Senta who is willing to die for him and the sailors’ exuberant chorus sung on returning home after weeks at sea. (Alicia Matromonaco’s program note rightly characterized the underlying theme of ‘redemption through love’ in this case, though that driving force applies no less to all of Wagner’s mature operas.) The opening storm scene was especially thrilling as the large orchestra on stage blared its swirling maelstrom.

Tall, head-shaved and with large hands, Cuban pianist Marcos Madrigal took the stage with a showman’s swagger and delivered in kind for Chopin’s first of two concertos—composed at age 19 but published after the later and more popular Concerto in E Minor, Op 11. Madrigal presented a clear interpretive concept of the piece but consistently blurred its clarity by his heavy use of the sustain pedal. What should have sparkled instead muddied, especially in the alto-tenor midrange of the fine Steinway grand. The heart of the 35-minute piece is its slow middle movement which provided a glimpse into the mature composer’s acute sensitivity to harmonic possibilities, an essential component of ‘romantic’ 19th century music. (In that respect, Chopin channeled JS Bach, a Baroque ‘romantic.’)

Nevertheless, the audience went wild over Madrigal’s flamboyance and were rewarded by a silly Cracker Jack candied-corn encore of the “Largo al factotum” from Rossini’s Barber. (Why any artist of serious purpose would spend time memorizing such schlock suggests a never-outgrown childish need for approval, or at least attention.)

Bragado’s take of the Beethoven was expansive—36 minutes—mirroring the great German conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler in the early 1950s. (The equally great Italian conductor Arturo Toscanini tried to get it done in 20 minutes.) I vote for Bragado; I’ve heard the piece dozens of times, live and on recordings, yet on Saturday night at Sunset Center I discovered details, especially in the winds, I had not previously taken into account. Some of them gave me goosebumps.

When the orchestra assembled after the intermission, the cellos and double basses did not soon appear. It seems the principal cellist had broken a string and needed time to install a new one and to let it quit stretching before the concert could safely resume.  

Madrigal didn’t elevate Chopin beyond himself. For me, the Wagner and Beethoven linger vividly, the Chopin and Rossini forgettable.