Monterey Symphony

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By Scott MacClelland

IN EUROPE, back in the 16th century, quodlibet—literally ‘what pleases’—was codified as a musical term, in form a potpourri of well-known tunes amalgamated into a whole. Because of its inclusion of familiar college songs, Brahms’ Academic Festival Overture qualifies as a quodlibet. There is however no other such application I know of that calls for such a large symphonic orchestra.

This witty work, a reward to the University of Breslau for bestowing on the great musician an honorary doctorate, opened the Monterey Symphony concert on Sunday at Sunset Center. On the podium, Max Bragado-Darman led a skillfully-paced reading that was tuned-in to the dynamic range intended by the composer. After the tongue-in-cheek spookiness of the introduction, the brass chorale suddenly added a tone of seriousness. Thus, it reflects the several facets of Brahms’ art and personality. It’s also an example of his supreme mastery of craft.

That it should launch a program that concluded with a symphony by Robert Schumann should come as no surprise. From his early twenties, Brahms would remain in thrall to Schumann throughout his creative life, even though their personal relationship lasted less than three years—between meeting in 1853 and Schumann’s death in an asylum in Bonn.

Schumann’s Symphony in C Major, Op. 61, was completed in 1846 in Leipzig, seven years before Brahms showed up at his door in Düsseldorf. The aural hallucinations that led to his attempted suicide in 1854, just four months after meeting Brahms, had already begun to afflict him. As a symphony composer—he composed five including two versions of the Symphony in D Minor—Schumann was highly ambitious. Because of its concentration of challenges, the 40-minute C Major is relatively rarely performed. “I have always considered it as one of the greatest challenges for orchestras and conductors,” Bragado told me in an email response to my inquiry. “The second movement is fiendish. The third movement is the most beautiful music of the Romantic era, and I have nightmares thinking that I might not do it justice.”

Most happily, he, and they, did it splendid justice. Among its adventures are the recurring thematic ideas which echo with economy throughout. The “fiendish” second movement, like the composer’s personality, is bi-polar, with frequent mood swings that require abrupt changes of direction. Moreover, the moto-perpetuo influence of Schubert’s Ninth Symphony is a powerfully driving force; the accelerating run up to its conclusion was breathtaking. (Schumann was the first to recognize the greatness of that work which had lain unperformed in public until 1839, eight years after Schubert’s death.)

The third movement, Adagio espressivo, is no less daunting, if now told in long-drawn phrases. It is as affecting as anything from that era and, indeed, could well stand alone as its representative. Conducting from memory, Bragado drew out those phrases with clarity and intensity. We won’t hear its like again for many years I fear.

Josu de Solaun’s return as a guest soloist was most welcome; his previous appearances here remain memorable. This time it was for Saint-Saëns’ Piano Concerto No. 5 in F, the so-called “Egyptian.” The funny thing about Saint-Saëns is that his music can sound banal or enlightened, and sometimes both, depending on who’s performing it. This concerto is highly entertaining if scarcely profound, yet Solaun imbued it with a stylish insight all his own.

It doesn’t take a PhD to crib somebody else’s research (John Palmer’s) when publishing program notes under your own name without acknowledging the source. (That’s a matter of professional ethics I would think worthy of looking into.) But for that purpose a PhD should be useful in reading a score or simply listening to a recording for the music to tell its story. In this case the outer Allegro movements are energetically clever with syncopated rhythms, infectious themes and polyphonic textures that drive inevitably toward climaxes. Solaun however slowed for some truly poetic glimpses of personal sensitivity. He continued exploiting such contrasts in the second movement, a Cook’s tour up the Nile, into the Levant, to Spain, China and even Indonesia. It’s all quite dizzy with these effects and modal scales and often warrants a giggle.

In answer to his curtain calls, Solaun gave a remarkable demonstration of pedaling in a single encore, Ondine from the second book of Preludes by Debussy. Again, his sensitive artistry carried the moment.