Monterey Symphony ‘Ovation’ III

By Scott MacClelland

TWO WORKS OF EXCEPTIONAL TREASURE drew standing ovations Sunday at Sunset Center when Max Bragado-Darman conducted Elgar’s “Enigma” Variations and Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade. While the two works are markedly different from one another, and with a gap of ten years between their compositions—1888 and 1898—they share common ground in their closing moments: each weaves a rich tapestry of recycled material introduced earlier on.

For the Elgar, Bragado took a mostly leisurely pace, only throttling up for the explosive parts. This gave the reading overall a more circumspect character than is typical and added fully five minutes to the usual 32-minute performance time. It also tended to underplay the comedic turns that Elgar used to make fun of some of the personalities he portrays in each of the variations.

Elgar remained mum on his enigma, even suggesting a deeper mystery contained therein. Many a music maven has been burned by the flame of suspense implied by its riddles, some creating fantastically arcane solutions. But the most obvious is also the plainest to see. The first five notes are a virtual quote of a short bit in the G Major/Minor second movement in 6/8 time of Mozart’s “Prague” Symphony, heard first on the violins over a horn pedal-point. (Mozart presented it twice and added a third reprise later in the movement.) Elgar introduced it in G Minor and 4/4 time but rephrased it with a rest between the last two notes. (In the variations he also presents it in the major.) While Mozart didn’t develop the idea, Elgar took it to town. The closest he comes to the Mozart original can be heard in the eighth variation. Meanwhile, the popular “Nimrod” ninth variation paraphrases the slow movement from Beethoven’s “Pathétique” piano sonata. Elgar’s final variation is an over-the-top self-portrait.

Here is a more detailed examination by David Owen Norris.

Like the Elgar, Bragado conducted Rimsky’s Technicolor masterpiece from memory, in a sprawling 50-minute extravaganza. Each of the four movements represents scenes from the thousand and one Arabian Nights, tales the titular Scheherazade told to King Shahriar each night of their ‘honeymoon,’ stopping midway at dawn the next day in order to keep her new husband transfixed in suspense for the ‘rest of the story’ and to save herself from the fate of all her predecessors. Her trick was to keep the shah from his paranoid habit of beheading his new brides each morning before they could cuckold him with a new lover. For music lovers on Sunday, Rimsky went one better per Bragado and the Monterey Symphony. He and they kept their heads.

Simultaneously weaver and seducer, concertmaster Christina Mok beguiled in the title role, establishing and sustaining the narrative connections from one tale to the next. She was likewise aided and abetted by an extraordinary complement of cameo solos from every section of the orchestra, from horn and trumpet to viola, tambourine, harp and piccolo. (I doubt that any composer before or since has put the piccolo flute and the horn section together as uniquely.)         

A stentorian fanfare, emphasizing low brass, establishes the first theme and introduces The Sea and Sinbad’s Ship amid surging orchestral waves. The Kalandar (Qalandar) Prince follows—there are actually three of them in the Arabian Nights. The Young Prince and The Young Princess glows with soaring melodies and serves, if you will, as the ‘slow’ movement. The finale is a hodge-podge including Festival at Baghdad, The Sea and Sinbad’s Ship Smashes on Rocks Surmounted by a Bronze Horseman. Fortunately, Rimsky dodged the temptation to be too literal and stuck with material introduced in the earlier movements.

The cameo solos from all over provided glittering counterpoint to the splendid symphonic score, a delicious treat especially targeting the hundreds in attendance who had to endure a parking nightmare thanks to a three-day holiday weekend in Carmel.