I CONFESS that I don’t know how calling a concert “Majestic Realm” entices subscribers or last-minute ticket buyers. But somehow it seems to have worked for Sunday’s Sunset Center audience who came to hear music never before performed here. Two of the composer’s names were familiar enough, Johann Strauss, Jr. and Sergei Prokofiev. Yet it would be their works making local debuts: Strauss’ Gypsy Baron overture and Prokofiev’s Seventh Symphony. Along with William Walton’s Viola Concerto, this program turned out to be one of the best of the current Monterey Symphony season.
The Strauss opera overture, as was the custom in the 19th century, was stitched together last from melodic ideas in the opera itself. Here, as with the Prokofiev, Max Bragado conducted the orchestra from memory and with gusto.
But both Bragado and the Chilean-born soloist Roberto Diaz read their parts for the Walton, a three movement work modeled on Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No. 1. It was premiered by Paul Hindemith who played every orchestral instrument except harp, but was best known in solo performance as violist. Indeed, the Walton also reflects the influence of Hindemith, particularly his mastery of counterpoint. (Walton even composed an orchestral variations on a theme from Hindemith’s 1940 cello concerto.)
Bragado and Diaz revealed both the feisty and the romantic aspects of the composer, the latter quality appearing only for the first time in this work with gorgeous melodies given to both solo and orchestra. In the broad andante first movement, the solo at times was subsumed by the richly active orchestral fabric. (Viola concertos are few and far between, probably for this reason.) The other Walton conceit, inspired by American jazz syncopation, charged up the scherzo-like, kaleidoscopic second movement, marked Vivo con molto preciso. In the final movement of the 26-minute performance, the interplay of soloist and orchestra matched the success of the second. Midway through the soloist could only stand by while the orchestra indulged in a symphonic fugue of brilliant design. The intersection of Walton and Hindemith was unmistakable. As the orchestral show subsided the solo viola was allowed back in as both slowed the pace and lowered the dynamic. The concerto ended with a whisper. The audience registered its approval. (One would have to have some serious memory to recall the last performance of it by the Monterey Symphony, in 1988.)
Obviously, Max Bragado loves Prokofiev’s last symphony, and he made a fine account of it. Even though the composer had suffered serious health issues by 1952, he managed to produce a fresh, even youthful work in the year before his death. This is made even better by his masterful use of the old classical forms and his brilliant orchestral palette. Nominally in the key of C-Sharp Minor, it opens with a haunted and haunting theme that is impossible to forget. The combination of high violins and low brass and winds, plus orchestral piano, delivers the unmistakable soundscape that could be the work of no other composer. Soon, a new theme, in the major, and equally unforgettable, rises to the surface. These two play out their energies in the expansive development section. The second movement is Prokofiev in his most riotous orchestration, exploding with breathtaking ideas almost as fast as one can identify them flying by. When it ended, gasps in the audience could be heard.
While well played, the slow movement, Andante espressivo, didn’t actually live up to the composer’s highest standards elsewhere in this piece. The finale, in spirit like the second movement, harkened back to Prokofiev’s earliest works. This was circus music tinged with sarcasm. Again, fresh ideas popped in and out of focus at a high clip. As the end of the symphony approached, the optimistic second theme from the first movement floated into prominence giving the performance a most satisfying conclusion. I’m guessing that many in the audience were taken by surprise at what a fine work this is, given that it inexplicably gets such little exposure.