Monterey Symphony

By Dana Abbott

THE MONTEREY SYMPHONY’S 2018-19 season follows a theme, Sound Waves. The opening concert on October 20 and 21 demonstrated that theme on several levels.

Obvious was the premier performance of a commission from composer Alex Berko, on hand to discuss his new piece in a pre-concert talk. Berko came to the attention of conductor Max Bragado-Darman, some years ago, in his youth. He is just recently 23 years old and of major talent. In his talk, the voluble composer explained the architecture of Among Waves, his first work for orchestra. The performance was accompanied by a visual loop of various ocean waves on the drop down screen behind the orchestra, playing with stand lights to enable reduced stage lighting. Berko (pictured with Jung-Ho Pak, who will guest conduct the Monterey Symphony’s March program) reported one major issue with the commission, which included an inspirational visit to the Big Sur coast; he was to use the orchestra called for in Franz Schubert’s Symphony No. 9, the other work on the program. He explained briefly the challenges facing a modern composer, in particular the challenge of writing a piece without a percussion battery! The Schubert features only timpani.

Berko’s Among Waves is quite listenable, in three joined sections. The first, The Tide, features interplay of orchestral color and harmony, the second, Flowing Even in Stillness, brings attention to intermixed rhythms and the third, Silver Wall, features large interacting blocks of sound. Wispy themes are passed around and developed without achieving memorable monumentality, yet with impressive command of orchestral color and without the abrasive quality of some “modern” scores. It is a little like extended, slightly diffuse, late Sibelius development. The piece is not long, around 15 minutes. The audience reacted positively. To this reviewer, Among Waves suggests that Berko be watched and is capable of more; the piece was a fine concert opener, like starting a concert with a tone poem.

Franz Schubert’s Symphony No. 9 is called “The Great” owing to its grand scale and to distinguish it from an earlier symphony, No. 6, also in C Major. The program notes for the concert discussed an issue of some importance in musicology, the composer Schubert working in the shadow of his elder, Beethoven. Schubert drafted several symphonies, the first 6 completed were finished before 1818 when Schubert was 21!  He finished two in his remaining 10 years, the “Unfinished” in B Minor and the “9th.” He likely never heard the last two in performance. But he knew Beethoven’s work and attended the first performances of the stunning Ninth Symphony. Though there is no record of Schubert meeting the difficult and virtually deaf master, Beethoven spoke positively of Schubert, who was a pallbearer at Beethoven’s large public funeral. Schubert’s own “9th” was written after Beethoven’s had been performed, thus the possibility of discussing a “reaction” especially when dealing with two gifted composers. 

In the end Schubert’s Ninth Symphony was first performed 11 years after his death. Robert Schumann described its “heavenly” length; it is longer than most symphonies up to that time. Soon after leading its premier in Leipzig, Felix Mendelssohn tried to get it performed again in England but the English orchestras were disinclined mostly for the symphony’s length and difficulty, especially for the violins. It opens with a distinctive horn solo, which acts as the germination for the entire piece. The symphony is not brief, it goes on; the orchestration tends to thickness with repetitious use of the string and wind choirs, often playing tutti. Innovative at the time, three trombones are called for and play a significant part in the unfolding drama. The dynamic is often mezzoforte or louder. Waves of sound are created. There is a curious lack of consistent variation in orchestral color and in some hands the piece can take on the aspect of tunefully appealing, but endless German band music, pummeling the modern listener into periods of inattention or even annoyance. Yet the core melodic gift of the composer is evident and the piece has achieved standard repertoire status.

Max Bragado-Darman conducted the Schubert from memory and clearly likes it. He achieved good rhythmic control in a well-rounded performance, adding some special punctuation to the third movement He often signaled for more sonority from the horns in climactic sections of the score. At 62 minutes, the reading was well above the average of 55 minutes yet revealed important details, especially in the second movement. The audience, including many younger people, greeted the conclusion with enthusiasm. 

It is not for us to know how Schubert would have treated the medium of symphony composition after his “9th.” This concert suggested that he created waves of sound, and that perhaps his musical thinking was in developmental flux. The work can be seen as a quick reaction that might have been reworked or further developed had the opportunity come.