Monterey Symphony, Nov 20

By Scott MacClelland

DEPARTING FROM the tried and true orchestral formula is something I fully applaud. But in semi-staging Rossini’s Barber of Seville by the Santa Cruz Symphony early this month, and semi-staging Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream by the Monterey Symphony last weekend, such departures were anything but bold. In both cases, the music safely ranks right up there with their composers’ greatest hits. Still, both involved new risks.

This proved a greater challenge for Max Bragado-Darman and the Monterey Symphony because it required actors taking multiple roles including, in the case of Michael Jacobs, ms-jacobspictured, and Doug Toby, narrators. (In Jacobs’ case: Oberon, Bottom, Pyramus, Theseus, Lysander and Demetrius.) Brave as these two men were in distilling the essentials, their swiftly changing roles created more confusion than clarity. Ultimately, it would take Bragado, the orchestra and the music of Felix Mendelssohn to restore the 75-minute production, heard Sunday in Carmel, to some sense of context. And for that, kudos.

However, as the famous overture began, the orchestra played with less than its usual precision. The wind entrances, which open the piece, were ragged, and ensemble in the first violin section, who get the sparkling “fairy” music, was fuzzy. (At the interval, before the Mendelssohn, I noticed that 24 of the orchestra’s regular musicians—out of 77—were listed as “not in this performance,” and three more are on ‘leave of absence.’ Ergo, many of that number were brought in as subs.) But that overture, a stand-alone masterpiece by a 16-year-old composer, leaves even Mozart at that age in the dust, and deserves its acclaim. The comedic central section, complete with Bottom’s “hee-haws,” lays out that much more of the music Mendelssohn would recycle later as ‘incidental music’ commissioned to accompany a stage production of the comedy in the early 1840s. Effectively rebalancing this production fell to the Scherzo, Nocturne and Wedding March of the familiar concert suite.

Lucretia Butler’s stage direction did what could be done with (the late) Thomson Smillie’s rapid-fire narration. Four large armchairs stood left and right of the podium, to accommodate Jacobs, Toby and sopranos Mary Young Bragado and Angelique Zuluaga, who both took multiple acting as well as singing roles, joined in voice by the women of Sal Ferrantelli’s I Cantori di Carmel. The production looked better on paper than its theatrical pacing confirmed. As popular as it is, Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is arguably the most complicated among all of his complicated comedies. Mendelssohn was so dialed-in that he mourns the ‘suicide’ of Pyramus with a lament on a klezmer clarinet. Nothing quite like a poke in the ear by a smart Jew!

The concert opened with Brahms’ “Haydn” Variations, a 20-minute orchestral tour-de-force inspired by a tune of ambiguous provenance set for woodwind quintet by Joseph Haydn. Good choice for Brahms who had a nose (ear?) for potent tunes. For the occasion, the Monterey Symphony was joined by 11 members of Youth Music Monterey County’s Honors Orchestra, who, upon their singular arrival on stage, were long-cheered by the audience. At the conclusion of their performance with the orchestra, Max Bragado brought on stage, with a heartfelt hug, YMMC’s gifted and inspiring music director, Farkhad Khudyev.