By Scott MacClelland
ON SUNDAY afternoon in Carmel, the Monterey Symphony served up a mixed bag, mysteriously titled “Charismatic Glow,” that delivered decidedly mixed results. The high point fell to Joaquín Achúcarro, a world-renowned, 82-year-old (or 88, depending on who you ask) Spanish pianist, who has made a Texas university his academic home since the early 1980s.
Conductor Max Bragado and a large orchestra opened the program with the prelude to the Gerónimo Giménez zarzuela, La Boda (wedding) de Luis Alonso, a folkloric postcard not previously heard here, and a colorful if superficial crowd-pleaser. (At least one of its opulently orchestrated themes is familiar on classical radio stations in the Spanish-flavored pieces by mid-19th century Russian composer Mikhail Glinka.)
Then came Rachmaninoff’s popular Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, which surprisingly did not sell out the house. A small number of children were in the audience but most of the younger adults were players in the orchestra. One of the most-admired examples of bravura pianism and ‘theme and variations’ among 20th century works—combining the Paganini theme with the 13th century Dies Irae melody—the piece got a spacious and vivid performance by Achúcarro and the Monterey Symphony. But most of the talk during the intermission was about the encore, the left-hand-only Nocturne, Op. 9, by Alexander Scriabin. This got playing of exceptional elegance and finesse. (Achúcarro graciously autographed copies of the program booklet for admiring fans during the interval.)
Antonín Dvořák’s Symphony No. 7 in D Minor that concluded the program was a disappointment. In the Baroque era, instrumental music was a players’ art and did not require a conductor to impart an individual vision of the pieces at hand. (As history has shown, large oratorios and operas of the time did need it.) But as 18th century instrumental music matured into the Classical era, the need for such leadership came ever more into focus. That requirement became more necessary in the 19th century and, more again, in the 20th. A conductor has at his disposal a handful of tools to draw out and bring to life the narrative of the pieces he “plays.” These include tempos that are elastic, surprising turns of phrase, and, more crucially, dynamic contrasts between the quiet and loud moments. Often this requires exaggeration in order to release the living energy of the music. This performance labored under a persistent sameness that failed to bewitch or beguile. No performance of this work, or any work of its time, isn’t also an interpretation of the composer’s intention. But an interpretation that sounds unengaged or dispassionate, that lacks whatever insights are needed to turn a reading into an adventure of discovery, hardly deserves an accolade, even when the orchestra itself held up its high standards.