Monterey Symphony, Nov 22

By Scott MacClelland

OPENING THE MONTEREY SYMPHONY program on Sunday, Aaron Copland’s seven-minute Letter from Home of 1944 speaks to the yearnings of Americans fighting in Europe and the Pacific. But program annotator Todd Samra doesn’t adequately explain how the composer’s style shifted from youthful modernist to midlife populist. Letter from Home was a later follow-up to that shift toward what Samra described as a “philosophy for writing music for audiences.” El Salón México began the populist parade that also included Rodeo, Billy the Kid, Appalachian Spring and Old American Songs. Yet even in that context, and by Copland’s own high standards, Letter from Home is easy listening and, though well played here, retro-sentimental. And where were the four saxophones from the original version?

Orion WeissFiery award-winning pianist Orion Weiss, a protégé of Emanuel Ax, joined Max Bragado and the orchestra for the regional premiere of Edward MacDowell’s Second Piano Concerto in D Minor of 1885, an eccentric but fascinating original that Weiss cleverly set on fire. It’s a problematic work, inspired but often bogged down with dense orchestrations, especially the string textures of the moody first movement. Fortunately, Weiss came out of the gate aggressively and maintained that approach throughout the 15-minute first movement which began and ended in a moody funk. The second movement, Presto giocoso, proved the most concise and lucid, in form an A-B-A ‘scherzo.’ The broad finale moved, in fits and starts, from a dark largo to manic attempts for the heroic and then finally ended in a quick burst of high energy.

Samra’s notes cite the influence of Beethoven and Schubert. I didn’t hear those composers in this piece at all. Samra does correctly cite Liszt but leaves out the numerous echoes of Edvard Grieg’s glorious Concerto in A Minor, by then well-known for nearly two decades. As such, MacDowell’s 30-minute concerto is cast in the style of his German training. Like Schumann, MacDowell’s mental acuity declined alarmingly at the turn of the 20th century—he died at age 47—and though composed 15 years earlier the mercurial meanderings of the outer two movements may be seen as evidence of what lay in the future.

The audience rewarded Weiss with a standing ovation and he returned the kindness with the bristling finale from Alberto Ginastera’s First Piano Sonata.

Symphony board-president Lee Rosen told me that when Leonard Bernstein first played Charles Ives’ Second Symphony he declared it unconductible, so went about revising it substantially. (Ives was not happy about it.) That version has been the choice more or less ever since. But this performance reverted to Ives’ original. With Bragado on the podium, it didn’t appear to be unconductible, though in places it seriously entangles mixed meters and multiple tonalities. Ives’ teacher at Yale was Horatio Parker, who studied and extolled Brahms as the chief god of composing in the late 19th century. But unlike the other works on the program, this one was chock full of American hymns, folksongs, popular songs and familiar marches, one of which made a tentative appearance in the long first movement. More and more of them began to gain greater concentration as the five-movement work unfolded. The following Allegro was dominated by the then-still-new America the Beautiful. The Adagio cantabile brought up Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean and Camptown Races and included cello solos beautifully played by Principal Drew Ford.

Following it, 25 members of Youth Music Monterey’s Honors Orchestra joined the Symphony for the two elided final movements. That meant many of the professional string players had to relinquish their seats for the duration. As the young musicians entered the stage, the audience gave them a round of applause, a genuine recognition of the ongoing cordial relationship between the two institutions. The wonderful chaos of Ives’ Second Symphony gained intensity and power right up to the grindingly dissonant final chord. At last, this all-American program came home to America.

At this concert, as on yesterday’s performance for school students at Sunset Center, a film crew was on hand pursuant to an upcoming PBS documentary. Stay tuned for further details.