Monterey Symphony

By Scott MacClelland

A MOST WELCOME TREAT on the Monterey Symphony’s second “Sound Waves” season program in Carmel was Carl Nielsen’s 20-minute Flute Concerto of 1926 and its soloist, acclaimed Carol Wincenc. Nielsen is sorely ignored in most American orchestra programming, yet his originality blazes through all of his music. (He was represented several years ago when Larry Granger included his Aladdin suite on a Santa Cruz Symphony program.) The Danish Nielsen is often compared to the Finnish Jean Sibelius, both born in 1865, but to my ear Nielsen is far more of his time than the adored—including by me—Sibelius, whose distinctive sound and constructs trace their roots to the late 19th century Russian composers, especially Tchaikovsky. You find no reflection of World War I in the Finn, but no shortage of it in the Dane.

The program note quotes Nielsen, “The flute cannot deny its own nature, its home is Arcadia and it prefers pastoral moods.” The concerto is no Arcadia however. It’s loaded with conflict, not unlike those Vivaldi violin concertos that aggressively pit the solo against the ensemble. But the Nielsen bristles with tension and confrontation, while still contained within true musical values. In the first of the two movements, the flute finds itself in an angular duet with an unaccompanied clarinet, then later with an ill-tempered trombone unsoftened by either strings or winds. In the second and final movement, the flute engages in duet with the bassoon and later the horn. (In both cases the first partner reprises its role later in the movement.) Conductor Max Bragado-Darman had his hands full with these and other solo instrumental digressions plus an orchestra that Nielsen dialed in and out of its relationship to the solo.

Returning for an encore, Fauré’s Morceau de concours in F for flute and strings, Wincenc praised the audience for its patience with the Nielsen, “a challenge to listen to.”

The grand finale to the program was Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4 in F Minor, a 49-minute reading that showcased all of the composer’s most flamboyant excesses up to that point (1877), including his impulsive jumps into new ideas then shoring them up with craft and, always, an eye toward effect. Much has been made of the nickname “Fate” that sticks to this work and, equally, to Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony. (So much for nicknames.) 

Some of those impulsive ideas aroused the ridicule of Brahms, an accomplished symphonist more in the classical mold. For example, the development in the first movement could rightly be called “I want it.” That craving, phrased according to those three syllables, repeats and repeats, ever higher and more urgent, yearning for release like the love scene in Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, with a kind of heated intensity that a friend of mine called “orgasm music.” But finally Tchaikovsky remembered that this was a symphony and therefore needed to return to some kind of classical architecture. Then in the second movement andantino, he settled into a haunting melody of a melancholic mood that, in one repeat, was decorated with a truly silly ornament in the woodwinds, tossed from one instrument to another, which simply made a mockery of the original idea. At least it gave the winds something to do. Then came the unique surprise; a scherzo that gave the strings sempre pizzicato from beginning to end; the only deviation was a new thought for the winds, which ultimately made a perfect foil for all the plucking. Lastly, a fiery (fuoco) allegro, all horn volleys, crash cymbals and blazing high and low brass. Of Tchaikovsky’s six worthy symphonies—seven if you include his Manfred—the last, “Pathétique,” is easily the best. But for audiences ginned up for noisy entertainment just a bit shy of Las Vegas, this one was a surefire bet.

Alert to all the fine points and details of dynamics and phrasing, Bragado’s orchestra measured up to the challenge handsomely. On the podium, he did likewise with the program-opening Le corsaire overture of 1844 by Hector Berlioz. Typical of the French composer’s concert overtures—with no opera intended to follow—it blusters, races and even sings, as if that were typical of privateers (pirate ships) of his era. (It was the only nod on the program to the oceanic theme suggested by Sound Waves.) For the piece, 20 members of Youth Music Monterey’s Honors Orchestra joined the Monterey Symphony, packing the stage full. At his entrance, Bragado asked them to stand before his orchestra did, then repeated the gesture at the conclusion. He also welcomed YMM’s conductor Farkhad Khudyev to the stage for a congratulatory handshake. Bragado is the first Monterey Symphony conductor to take a serious lead on behalf of accomplished student orchestra musicians of Monterey County.