By Scott MacClelland
Thirty-four musicians from Youth Music Monterey’s Honor Orchestra stuffed themselves into the Monterey Symphony on the Sunset Center stage Sunday afternoon—all graciously honored by conductor Max Bragado and his orchestra—for a spectacular reading of Maurice Ravel’s Alborada del Gracioso. Inexplicably, this sensational orchestral showpiece, Ravel’s homage to Emanuel Chabrier’s España, written a generation earlier, drew only modest applause from the full-house audience. Maybe it’s the sign of the times. Maybe audiences are actually getting younger, or at least represent a younger generation, one that isn’t so familiar with Ravel’s huge contribution to the 20th century orchestral canon.
Next came the West Coast premiere of Christian Lindberg’s trombone concerto, Chick-a-Bone Checkout, composed for the Chicago Symphony’s trombone ‘god’ Charlie Vernon (pictured), irreplaceable in the part and glorious in all white, including hat, on stage with his three gleaming trombones ready for action. Meanwhile, the Symphony’s resident musicologist Todd Samra’s program notes shed no light on Lindberg’s Chicago Symphony commission—the one piece on the program that really needed it—not its creative impulse, technical components nor historic realization. Instead it spun the same lazy generalities and platitudes we have long endured among too many of the local print media. (Samra’s additional commentary from the stage during the lengthy stage set-up added nothing more; he recited Carl Sandburg’s poem Chicago, a putative inspiration, which had already been printed in the program handout.) At least a sequence of programmatic events on the program listing page suggested a road map to the piece. But you had to go to Daniel Wakin, writing in the New York Times, to discover, along with other relevant details, the whimsical origin of the title: Chica (Chicago) Bone (trombone) Check [it] out (Vernon’s invitation to the uninitiated.)
Fortunately, the piece itself was far more substantive, 23 minutes long starting with a staccato stutter on the trombone to an accompaniment of wood blocks. A virtuosic skirmish ensued, with Vernon buzzing the lowest possible tones on the ‘bass’ among his instruments. In quieter moments, three handheld drums whispered encouragement to Vernon’s solos. Suddenly two orchestra trombonists rose and joined the soloist in a seductive trio of welcome chords. Once again, Vernon took the spotlight for more displays of his unique “chops.” By and by the mood grew romantic with a love song soaring over a bed of warm strings. The flavors continued to etch and develop differing impressions of the Windy City. Shortly before the final flourish, the staccato stuttering and wood blocks returned. Overall most of the orchestral energy emanated from the brass and percussion, with woodwinds adding their own color-commentary, while the strings were entrusted with a more passive presence. Whether the piece enters the popular concert repertory is anybody’s guess, but Vernon’s performance brought the house to its feet. He returned the compliment with a long solo on George Bassman’s I’m Getting Sentimental Over You, with its memorable but uniquely exotic melody.
After the interval, Bragado conducted Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, and offered special thanks to some of the concertante soloists, especially flutist Dawn Walker who established the character for the whole piece with that mysterious tritone opening line. The orchestra sounded simultaneously rich yet delicate with full-bodied color saturation.
Gershwin’s fabulous An American in Paris got a stunning reading by Bragado and his band. Transparent sound shields were positioned in front of brass and percussion the better to protect the string players from explosive volleys, the very things that electrified the audience. There could be no question that this riotous tone poem of various moods, from blaring taxi horns to bits of quiet reflection with cameo solos to raucous Harlem dances, deserves its place of honor in the concert repertoire of both France and America, and anywhere else it lifts an audience to a standing ovation.
Even though this concert scored a big success, attendees will most likely be talking longest about Charlie Vernon. Still, any new piece needs another hearing. Fortunately, KUSP will broadcast the entire program on February 13, 2015, at 8pm. I plan to record the broadcast at home.