Monterey Symphony, Feb 21

By Scott MacClelland

MONTEREY SYMPHONY patrons who have not attended Youth Music Monterey’s concerts—there’s one coming up next Sunday—were taken aback by the impact of guest conductor Farkhad Khudyev’s podium appearance last weekend. Heard Sunday afternoon in Carmel, the orchestra was plainly comfortable with this new man in charge. To celebrate the occasion, and the 70th anniversary season of the Symphony, Khudyev conducted the premiere of The Sounds of Eternity, his 10-minute original that mixed Turkmen folk elements and Caucasus melodies into a quasi-tone poem that echoed experiences from his youth. (Born in Ashgabat, his parents are of Azeri and Russian heritage.)

Folk rhythms and timbres, including a high metallic effect, opened the colorful piece with a dramatic flourish that played its theme several times over, rondo style, and included some bird calls. It was soon followed by a lush, romantic wash on the strings that might have served well as the backup for a Frank Sinatra ballad. (The composer claims Rachmaninoff as a major influence.) This gave way to an ominous growl on the double bass section. Full stop. The second half began with a busy texture on the full orchestra that grew in intensity and conflict, “the imprint of the Turkmenistan civil war” said the program notes. The work concluded with a vigorous dance. The large audience enthusiastically applauded its approval.

Featured soloist was Khudyev’s younger brother Emil, a first-rate clarinetist who performed the popular Clarinet Concerto in A by Mozart, an endearing piece from late in the composer’s short life. Like the majority of classical clarinet players today, Emil Emil-KhudyevKhudyev (pictured) plays without vibrato, delivering a pure tone that always remained in perfect tune. A pupil of the acclaimed David Shifrin, a veteran performer who has appeared at Sunset Center more than once, Khudyev plays with personal character. The biggest giveaway to the concerto’s relative maturity is the first movement’s departure from traditional sonata form; no solo cadenza followed the recapitulation which itself happily goes meandering. The gem of the piece is the slow adagio movement. Khudyev played its haunting melody at a quiet piano while the orchestra surrounded it with caresses. Then, midway, he brought it back again, this time at pianissimo, something the clarinet in the right hands can do like no other instrument. The finale is pure charm, even if its repeating rondo theme could use some shortening. Blasphemy, I know, but…

Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7, like the Mozart in the key of A, has brought conductors to their knees. Or, rather, sucked them in up to their knees like quicksand, thanks to its dance rhythms that never let up. The trick is to envision how to break loose from the steady pulsings that drive every movement. It takes as much vision as determination. While Richard Wagner is often quoted as glibly calling the piece “the apotheosis of the dance,” the famous English conductor Thomas Beecham complained, “What can you do with it? It’s like a lot of yaks jumping about.”

Still many love it for just those unique qualities. In execution, the obvious defaults therefore are those two essentials in the conductor’s toolbox: tempos and dynamics—specifically contrasting each against itself and applying to both. (This is artifice, since Beethoven, here as always, builds into his rhetoric nonstop surprises, a lesson well-learned from Joseph Haydn.)

So here was Farkhad Khudyev, with the score memorized, putting this piece through its paces—his paces. The long slow introduction to the first movement, itself energized by a combination of mystery and anticipation, captured the audience’s attention, while the full vivace erupted with all requisite energy. Yet of the four movements, this one felt most enthralled to its rhythmic drive. The succeeding allegretto, by contrast, saw much greater elasticity, following the conductor’s now freer expressive phrasing. Its variations, in contrast to the example of Haydn, were both more concise and, as the movement unfolded, sustained and expansive.

The third movement, a scherzo with trio, saw an even greater display of Khudyev’s podium technique, from broad brush strokes with little fuss over details to dropping his arms motionlessly with only his shoulders and, presumably, facial expressions providing guidance. (He did the same thing in the quiet fugal episode in the allegretto.) Meanwhile, Khudyev made this movement as big as the first, drawing out the trio section’s ‘pilgrim’s hymn’ which flattered the winds. Per the score, it interrupted the scherzo twice, adding a recall just before the final iteration of the scherzo material.

Then the young guest conductor pounced on the final sonata-allegro movement, driving it as fast as I have ever heard it live, ripping through to a breathtaking conclusion in under nine minutes. The reaction on stage and in the audience was explosive.