Monterey Symphony “Ovation”

By Scott MacClelland

THE PROGRAM BOOKLET hand-out at Saturday’s Monterey Symphony concert was chock full of display ads praising and thanking Max Bragado-Darman, music director here for 15 seasons who will retire at the conclusion of the 42nd season. His fans and Symphony benefactors are abundant—Sunset Center was sold out—and a special send-off dinner for them has been booked following the final concert in May.

Indeed, the Saturday performance was preceded by a lavish party in the outdoor areas and in the lobby at the venue, that began an hour ahead. (Outdoor parties and street fairs seem to have become the New Big Thing for symphony orchestras and festivals.)

Max—yes, we have long been on a first-name basis—has chosen a season that includes many of his own favorites. And why not? Why not perform the music that really turns him on and, for that reason, really connects to his audiences?

Such was certainly the case here. Berlioz’ Roman Carnival Overture opened the show and that composer’s brilliant Symphonie fantastique dominated the evening. Between them, concertmaster Christina Mok soloed in the irresistibly seductive Romance for violin and orchestra by Antonín Dvořák.

Some first night jitters pestered the interplay between winds and strings in the overture soon after the orchestra took the lead following Stephen Henry’s opening solo on cor anglais. That famous tune was itself initially flummoxed by an uncooperative reed, the notorious bane of double reed players. Soon-on the reading shifted up and began to sparkle like some of the outdoor lighting that had turned trees and shrubs into glittering Disney animations.

For me the best parts of Mok’s 12-minute Dvořák performance were the decorative bits when the orchestra—strings, winds and two horns—carried the tune. Here she made them sound utterly improvised and personal. Mok gave the lovely piece its due and, by its reaction, plainly won the hearts of the audience.

The Symphonie fantastique gives its conductor a perfect opportunity and, equally, danger, like the Chinese word that means both. A masterpiece of simplicity, complexity and sheer sensual wizardry, it demands a cinematic overview. It’s a solitary beacon that shares DNA with and stands between Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Symphony, composed 22 years earlier, and Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade, written 58 years later. But unlike the others, the intoxicated narrative of the Berlioz was opium-induced, full of hallucinatory visions and a singular obsession for an elusive feminine character who haunts all five movements with an “idée-fixe” theme. That gives the conductor a touchstone around which everything else revolves. That and the fact that the work is a musical autobiography by a love-besotted 27-year-old with a Napoleonic ego. What conductor could resist its siren call?

It’s also a lot of work, requiring countless choices, beforehand—Bragado conducted from memory—and during its realization back into living art. Berlioz appropriated from Beethoven titles for each of the movements then set about to ‘paint’ their implicit pictures. No small challenge when the full performance lasts nearly 55 minutes. The opening Rêveries—Passions itself lasts about 15 minutes as our ‘hero’ drifts in and out of full consciousness. The second movement, Un bal, introduces two harps while the idée-fixe character who fully drove the first movement now appears just vaguely ‘across a crowded room.’ The next long movement, Scène aux champs—arguably the trickiest to pull off—serves up a bucolic impression that comes closest to the Beethoven, flatters the winds and somehow discovers some entirely unexpected crescendos and climaxes. (It began and ended with cor anglais—the reed now willing to play well with others—and oboe in call-and-response duet.) When our narrator imagines he has slain his aloof love-interest, he is sentenced to die on the guillotine. Max began the March to the Scaffold with an engagingly measured tread. (I love the bit where the head bounces in the basket.) Finally, the Dream of a Witch’s Sabbath, when quite literally all hell breaks loose with the idée-fixe shrieking on clarinet, the clanging bells, the skeletal inverted bows bouncing on the strings and the Dies irae melody announcing the imminent Day of Wrath. Happy Halloween.

This was a fabulous performance, loaded with cameo solos and constantly adjusted for dynamic contrasts, that made everyone look good—especially Max—and augurs well for the remainder of the season. Recorded for broadcast, it will be aired by KAZU on November 9 and 10, 4pm.