By Scott MacClelland
HERE WAS an odd and wonderful program that began with the regional premiere of an obscure 30-minute tone poem by Spanish composer Enrique Granados, followed by Johannes Brahms’ cathartic Alto Rhapsody, and concluded with the two concert suites from Maurice Ravel’s most ambitious orchestral piece, the ballet Daphnis et Chloé. I wouldn’t have imagined ever putting those three works, or even their titles, in the same program. But conductor Max Bragado-Darman did and admits he threw dice, calling the endeavor “one of the most ambitious that we have presented since I came to the Monterey Symphony.”
That description accurately covered the menu. It is also code for ‘the audience might not get it.’ In measure, the audience Saturday night in Carmel certainly got the Ravel, probably because of its raucous finish with blaring orchestra and choir exhorting loudly on wordless vowels only. Using voices as orchestral color makes for a weird sonic combination, but exhilarating nonetheless.
This week marks the 100th anniversary of the torpedoing by a German U-boat of the English Channel ferry SS Sussex in which Granados and his wife were making the crossing. Despite losing its front end and 80 passengers, the Sussex did not sink, but was towed to Dieppe. To save his wife, the composer jumped into the water; neither was ever seen again. Inexplicably, program annotator Todd Samra’s notes falsely claim the Sussex was sunk. The Monterey Symphony deserves at least factual accuracy from him.
Not known for his symphonic music, Granados’ Dante, completed in 1908, makes no attempt to sound Spanish and instead resembles orchestral music by Liszt and Wagner, especially the latter’s Tristan und Isolde. Yet even with a high order of craftsmanship throughout, it can accurately be compared with no other Granados work I know. Cast in two movements, the purely orchestral, “Dante e Virgilio,” gives rise to some gorgeous love music. The second, “Paolo e Francesca,” developing much from the first, adds a solo mezzo-soprano voice to sing, in Italian, the sad plaint of Francesca da Rimini, whose soul is stuck in the hell of Dante’s Divine Comedy for the sin of lust with Paolo, the handsome brother of her murderous crippled husband. (Tchaikovsky also wrote a symphonic poem on the same subject, but that work has its composer’s recognizable fingerprints everywhere.)
The mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnson Cano, gifted with a generous, room-filling voice of uncommon richness, used it with dramatic, even operatic, expression. She was also the star of Brahms’ Alto Rhapsody, a journey from despair to hope that the composer needed after hearing that the much younger women he’d fallen in love with was engaged to be married. This was Julie Schumann, third daughter of his mentor Robert and his wife Clara who was 13 years Brahms’ senior. It was especially painful for a man who often and deeply loved women he couldn’t ‘have,’ but also because his intimate and sometimes querulous ‘friendship’ with Clara abided from his 20s until her death in 1896, a year before his own, at age 63. In the situation, the broken-hearted Brahms knew, “with concealed wrath, with rage” that he would be compelled, bitterly, to compose for Julie “a bridal song.”
The pain is palpable—“for whom balsam turned to poison”—in this great work. Johnson Cano was splendid here, expressing angst in the dark first two verses, then in resignation joined by the men (and one woman) of Cheryl Anderson’s Cabrillo Symphonic Chorus. It can be no surprise that Brahms selected these verses from Goethe so closely do they illustrate his feelings. With the words of hope—“If there is on your psaltery, Father of love, one note his ear can hear, then refresh his heart!”—the music turns into a haunting chorale. This work joins Ein Deutsches Requiem as among the composer’s most personal and emotionally vulnerable.
As with the Granados, Bragado-Darman and his orchestra were in fine fettle for the Brahms. And save for one brief failed horn line, the Ravel was (see Bakst’s design below) shocking in all the best possible ways. It’s an incredibly complex score—the first of the two suites never before played in this region—which Bragado-Darman had committed to memory. And it’s a challenge to listen to because it is so different in style from Ravel’s best known ‘classical’ works. He wrote the nearly one-hour complete score for Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes. (The two suites were performed in about 36 minutes.) Even with its pictorialism—the ‘sunrise’ that opens the second suite with twittering birds couldn’t be anything else—this moody, wild music, impulsive and constantly changing in character stands comparison with Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps.
But don’t tell Stravinsky; the always arrogant—if charming—Russian dismissed Ravel as a “Swiss watchmaker.”