Monterey Symphony, May 17

By Scott MacClelland

MAX BRAGADO-DARMAN set toes tapping Sunday afternoon in Carmel with his “Invitation to Dance” season finale. Actually, his Monterey Symphony ‘du jour’ delivered the goods. Every piece on the program could trace its origin to dance, the true beginning of instrumental music though lost in the mists of prehistory. These works, Weber/Berlioz and Antonín Dvořák from two halves of the 19th century and Sergei Mok_21Rachmaninoff and Alberto Ginastera from the 20th, were all far more sophisticated than dance’s humble beginnings but just as infectious. (Concertmaster Christina Mok, left, got solos in both of the latter two.)

The program booklet listed the orchestra personnel in three categories: Symphony musicians in this concert, supplemental musicians in this concert and Symphony musicians not appearing in this concert. This data was alarming. For example, only three Symphony musicians played in the second violin section, seven were ‘supplemental’ and four Symphony musicians were not in attendance. In the double bass section, two Symphony musicians were joined by four who were ‘supplemental’ while four from the Symphony’s roster sat out these three performances. If I understand this correctly, 20 Monterey Symphony musicians chose to not participate in this program. I have heard from some that this orchestra is not happy with its music director. But, as the complexities of Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances revealed, these musicians have each other’s backs.

Meanwhile, program annotator Todd Samra described Berlioz’ orchestration of Weber’s Invitation to the Dance as “infamous.” Everyone who knows this grand concert waltz at all is familiar with the Berlioz, opulently scored for large orchestra—and framed here by generous cello solos played by principal Adelle-Akiko Kearns. Almost no one remembers the original piano solo.

The orchestra then gave a fabulous account of itself in Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances, which for all intents and purposes is his Fifth Symphony, after the nominal three and the cantata The Bells. There will always be those who hear the Symphonic Dances, composed in 1940, as stylistically from the late 19th century. But it’s a brilliant orchestral showpiece with a singular place in the 20th century symphonic canon. And if you like it loud, Bragado does too. (Some patrons I know choose to sit as far back in the Sunset Center auditorium as possible.)

In its way, the Symphonic Dances inserts some of the composer’s favorite memories into a creation so fresh that he surprised even himself. (He would die of melanoma, in 1943, just days before his 70th birthday.) It’s an extravagant work, with many changes of mood in each of its three movements, rhythmically complex, vivaciously colorful, in turns fiercely masculine and utterly seductive, a real Don Juan at a time when such personalities in classical music—except for performers—were few and far between. The woodwind complement in the middle of the opening movement warbled enchantingly, contrabassoonist Lawrence Rhodes taking the haunting standout alto sax solo. In its last moments, Rachmaninoff softly mourns the spectacular climax from the same movement of his failed (and no less brilliant) First Symphony.

In the swaying second movement, tempo di valse, the viola section gets its own big moment while its fellow strings accompany with pizzicato.

The complex rhythms of the finale, 9/8s and 6/8s among others snapping back and forth, pile on the composer’s lifelong favorite musical motto, the Dies Irae which dates back to the 13th century. Moreover, he recalls the ninth movement from his Vespers that retells the story of Christ’s resurrection in exalted terms, a detail that would have enriched the program note.

The published program concluded with three familiar pieces from Dvořák’s Op. 46 Slavonic Dances and the four-dance suite from Estancia by Ginastera, all well played by the orchestra. Except for the tender Wheat Dance, featuring solos by flutist Dawn Walker and concertmaster Mok, with the horns in tandem, the other high-energy dances took added power from the percussion department. The Ginastera revels in explosive special effects and especially the riotous final Malambo, the composer’s greatest hit.

The concert began with a reading of Elgar’s Nimrod (from his Enigma Variations) as a tribute to four women who made major contributions to the Monterey Symphony, three board and Friends members and bassoonist Jane Orzel, who quit the orchestra in discontent in 2012. It wasn’t heartfelt from the podium; it peaked too early and got only louder after that. Elgar wrote the piece with tremendous love for his best friend. This was going through the motions without the love.