MONTEREY SYMPHONY CONDUCTOR Max Bragado-Darman has lifted his artistic game to a whole new level over the last three years. Yet I could not square his solo artist’s résumé with her Symphony performance on Sunday. Soprano Cyndia Sieden (left) was plainly not up to the promise of the program, even though her bio included a list of major operatic roles in world-famous houses and concert appearances with many of the top orchestras here and abroad.
Sieden presented a lyric voice, and a lightweight one at that, in the fifth movement of Brahms’ Ein deutsches Requiem, the big Act IV scene from Verdi’s late opera Otello and the final movement from Mahler’s Fourth Symphony. The Brahms, an add-on, with I Cantori di Carmel and its music director Sal Ferrantelli conducting, was offered as a memorial for the many longtime Symphony supporters who have passed on in the last six months. Right away, Sieden was awash in the forces at hand and, though she gamely went for a spinto push, the voice struggled to make an impact in the Sunset Center auditorium.
That struggle intensified, or rather failed to intensify, in the 22-minute “Willow Song” and “Ave Maria” scene as Desdemona anticipates her death at the hands of her insanely jealous husband, then, in prayer, comes to embrace the inevitable. This is where the character’s personality must take the lead and carry the day. The body-language was there but it did not find its way onto the voice. In the German Fach (compartment) system, the character of Desdemona calls for a lyric-dramatic soprano. The ‘dramatic’ usually implies a voice with heft, a big instrument. But it also implies the making of a dramatic character—in other words it demands an actor. Sieden tried but only drifted in the direction of creating the role and, again, could not muscle up enough horsepower to pull it off.
Things did not improve in the final ten-minute solo from Mahler’s Fourth, a child’s description of life in heaven. Here, pitch insecurity started to nag. Only when the tempo slowed in the last half of this orchestral song did Sieden begin to regain confidence.
Meanwhile, Max Bragado-Darman and his orchestra were in excellent fettle. The Verdi scene is a vivid reminder that its composer, often cast as a throwback against his contemporary, Richard Wagner, was actually accelerating in the direction of Wagner with this work, ie, dramatic scenes in place of popular tunes. At its premiere in 1887, at Milan, Verdi was 74 and had long since retired following the success of Aïda, which premiered 16 years earlier. (When Otello premiered, Wagner was four years dead.)
In the Verdi, and even more so in the Mahler, Bragado showed how deeply he had probed this music. I would say he knew more about what is going on in these works than his soloist did, and his orchestra certainly responded in kind.
In the Mahler Bragado and his orchestra delivered an absolutely thrilling account of some of the most complex and effervescent music ever composed for an orchestra. How Mahler did it boggles my mind. (And he kept doing it for six more symphonies, the last unfinished but still cutting-edge.) How, for example, was he able to concoct such fragility and bombast at the same time? How did he take the idea of the symphony—an historic combination of repetition and surprise—to the very edge of coherency?
Yet, here it was, a pageant of cameo solos and symphonic authority that made oil and water emulsify. The long first movement, opening with sleigh bells, seems idyllic, childlike, before the adventure starts to turn serious, circuitously early on, then determined, as it builds to a frightening climax signaled by trumpet fanfares that predict—and indeed will recycle in—the huge funeral march that opens the composer’s Fifth Symphony. As opening movements go, this is/was nothing short of a 4th of July fireworks show, all sizzle and spectacle, yet still making sense.
Of all the magic and mystery of the similarly schizophrenic second and third movements, the principal horn, Daniel Nebel, (CORRECTION: the solo horn for this concert was Alex Camphouse) played what amounted to a horn concerto, brilliantly. What a find, this guy!
What I love about Mahler’s symphonies is the gauntlet he throws down. The mournful cor anglais (played by Ruth Stuart Burroughs), the clarinets with their bells aimed directly at the audience, the cavorting horns, the sparingly used harp, the sleigh bells in the percussion. Mahler was painting a pre-Schoenberg ‘expressionist’ music at the same time Debussy was writing atonal ‘impressionist’ music. Love Debussy, but Mahler was at least as visionary in the 20th century sweepstakes.