Monterey Symphony, Big Sur

the-return-pico-blanco

By Scott MacClelland

THE MUCH ANTICIPATED new John Wineglass composition, Big Sur: The Night Sun, sold out Sunset Center at the Monterey Symphony’s season-opening program on Sunday afternoon. Described as a tone poem, its presentation was more like a pageant. Nine large paintings by Carmel artist Simon Bull (including The Return, Pico Blanco, above) were projected on the big screen behind the orchestra in smooth transition during the 25-minute musical work. Though played without breaks, Wineglass conceived of four sections, all inspired during a month spent at the Glen Deven Ranch on a ridgetop above Palo Colorado Canyon. (Wineglass said he deliberately cut himself off from the outside world in order to gain concentrated inspiration from the setting.)

Even before the piece began, the audience was transfixed by two large percussion arrays upstage, left and right, of mostly exotic drums, chief among them a six-foot high, five-feet-in-diameter hollowed out redwood tree with a huge drum head stretched over its top. Jayson Fann and his opposite counterpart, Marcie Chapa, began the piece softly and mysteriously over a bed of orchestra strings playing an unchanging pedal point. Soon Emiliano Campobello, playing native flute, and costumed vocalist Kanyon Sayers-Roods, added Ohlone-Chumash character to the blend, her voice imitating screeching hawks and barking coyotes. This “Mystery of the Night Sun”—inspired by a full moon rising over the Big Sur Mountains—was already heady stuff!

Then conductor Max Bragado-Darman cued his orchestra into “Rushing Waters” followed by “Pfeiffer Beach-A Secret Revealed,” each of which engaged the entire orchestra with surging waves of cinematic sonority in pursuit of a grand climax. Owing to his long career composing music for television and film, Wineglass’ style uses familiar musical vocabulary that could easily fit into a Hollywood epic. However, the sweep and breadth of his writing in these sections appeared to break new ground.

By and by the swells subsided into “The Return,” a final section that echoed the opening episode, shrewdly balancing a memorable journey into the indigenous culture and natural wonders of Big Sur. Wineglass graciously accepted a standing ovation.

Once sobriety had returned to orchestra and audience alike, Bragado took up the second concert suite from Prokofiev’s popular ballet Romeo and Juliet—the Shakespearean theme that will recur in all remaining five programs of the Symphony’s 71st season. The seven movements, opening with the grinding, menacing and thrilling “The Montagues and the Capulets,” played out across a span of more than 30 minutes. The great score is full of individual cameos in all sections—the viola solo played by Vladimir Khalikulov was an especially rare treat. Bragado, who, as in the Wineglass piece, conducted from memory, needed a fair amount of time to give credit to each and every player who had gotten his or her moment in the spotlight. The orchestra was truly fabulous.

Then came the resident piano trio—pianist Anna Petrova, violinist Rebecca Anderson and cellist JeongHyoun Christine Lee—for Beethoven’s “Triple” Concerto in C. (The three talented young women performed a program of Russian chamber music at All Saints Church in Carmel earlier in the week.)

While the “Triple” may not rank with Beethoven’s greatest works, it is greatly entertaining. The piano part is relatively easy, composed apparently for 15-year-old Archduke Rudolf Reiner, a student of the composer at the time and ultimately a lifelong friend. In each of the three movements, the cello makes the first solo entrance, before the violin and piano get their share of glory. In terms of classical form, the work is an oddity. Owing perhaps to the three-part ‘soloist,’ the opening movement doesn’t quite follow the classical sonata outlines, though it does develop two contrasting themes. Except for the few orchestral tuttis, the strings spend much of their time plucking instead of bowing, no doubt as to protect the clarity of the trio. The short largo second movement serves mainly to introduce the final Rondo alla polacca—with some bolero thrown in for added flavor. In another sense, the first two movements serve the finale, where entertainment becomes almost laugh-out-loud as the three solo instruments go into a mischievous flirtation with one another. Yet for all the fun, the playing was impeccable.

Like Wineglass, they too were rewarded with a long standing ovation.