By Scott MacClelland
IF SUNDAY’S PERFORMANCE at Sunset Center is any indication, the 70th anniversary season of the Monterey Symphony could set a new standard of quality. Max Bragado-Darman conducted an all-orchestral program that only got better as it unfolded. Moreover, it contained music that hasn’t been heard in the region for decades and included the Monterey Bay premiere of Shostakovich’s astonishing First Symphony.
In any set of three or more performances by an orchestra there is usually a peak where all the potential comes together. Arguably, this concert peaked on Sunday—though I was not there to hear the Friday and Saturday readings. In typical fashion, Bragado opened his season with the Star Spangled Banner, making many seniors in the audience struggle to get back on their feet again. This was followed by Siegfried’s Rhine Journey from Wagner’s Götterdämmerung. The 10-minute orchestral scene recalls many of the familiar themes that Wagner called by the term “leitmotif,” a device that facilitated organizing the total 16 hours of the “Ring” cycle of music dramas. The piece starts in the bowels of the orchestra, swells in volume, gives way to a racing horseride, slows the pace and ends with a heroic series of crescendos. It also contains a challenging horn solo that represents Siegfried’s proclamation of himself as a fearless warrior ready to take on the world. The orchestra did likewise except for a couple of pesky cracked horn notes.
Then came Richard Strauss’ Death and Transfiguration which here was a marvel. With its many long, widespread crescendos and decrescendos, it challenges a conductor in terms of both pacing and dynamics to make sure it doesn’t get too loud too soon, and vice versa. In this, Bragado held a deft hand on the reins while the orchestra gave him one of its finest moments in recent memory. It deserved a standing ovation but possibly it was unfamiliar to many in the audience who, as a result, might not have understood the narrative program behind the music. Concertmaster Christina Mok (left) played her solos with consummate skill and compelling expression.
The Shostakovich symphony, composed when he was 19 and itself a marvel, almost overwhelms the senses and the mind with its riotous display. With so much going on, and a kaleidoscope of cameo solos and original sound combinations, a listener had to work harder than usual in order to stay in the moment. But the piece paid off when it revealed a variety of influences from other composers, some quite witty, woven into an unprecedented tapestry. There were solos for concertmaster, principal cello (at one point playing in duet), piano, trumpet, horn, many of the woodwinds, and even timpani. In a manner of speaking, this piece laid the foundation for the 14 symphonies to follow. Best of all, the performance caught fire right from the sarcastic trumpet theme from which the cheeky first movement was concocted.
The somber mood of the third movement begins the fourth, courtesy the snare drum, then heats up, goes through numerous mood changes, from dark to light, from brooding to sparkling, from anxious to a final burst of militant energy. This is when the standing ovation took place, slowly at first then widespread. One can only hope that Bragado will add more Strauss and Shostakovich to his Monterey Symphony repertoire.