Monterey Symphony premieres

By Scott MacClelland

In three performances over the weekend Max Bragado and the Monterey Symphony gave their audiences two Monterey Bay premieres: Carl Nielsen’s Aladdin suite and Serge Prokofiev’s Second Piano Concerto. Heard Sunday in Carmel, they made strong, memorable impacts to a near sellout house. The second half was given to Dvořák’s popular Eighth Symphony which Bragado delivered in a loving if somewhat idiosyncratic interpretation.

The Nielsen, cobbled into a 25-minute concert suite from incidental pieces composed in 1919 for a staged production of Adam Oehlenschläger’s romantic play, proved to be more portable than the play itself, and has been heard around the world. Its distinctive and highly alluring exoticism came in part from a visit by the composer to Istanbul in 1903. Flavors of Grieg, Sibelius and Gustav Holst lingered in the ear. From the suite, Bragado selected three of the seven movements, all with propulsive dancing rhythms. This was most infectious stuff and appears to have been some of Nielsen’s own favorite music since he conducted it himself on many occasions. It also swelled the Monterey Symphony to its largest configuration and the great volume of its splendid sound completely filled the Sunset Center auditorium.

Dear Max: more Nielsen please!  

Unlike the populistic first and third of Prokofiev’s five piano concertos, the second—even with the composer’s favored classical forms and signal themes—is a kun_woo_paik_pianist2circumspect, ungracious piece that needs to be sold. Fortunately, Korea-born veteran artist Kun Woo Paik (pictured) was the man for the job. This was a hair-raising bravura performance of a tremendously complex keyboard part spread across four movements—with huge lengths of solo playing that go far beyond what ordinarily are called cadenzas. The large orchestra with scarcely less complex writing to navigate held its own handsomely, singing when it could, erupting with great bellows when called for. Bragado had his hands full as well. Part way into the last movement, at last, the piano introduced a wistful and haunting theme—expanded on by the orchestra—that a listener could actually go away humming. Then suddenly orchestra and piano turned aggressive again as they rushed to the work’s perfunctory finish and a well-warranted standing ovation.

Dvořák’s Eighth is the most retro-classical in spirit of the composer’s nine symphonic essays. As such, I don’t think it invites much romantic phrasing and thoughtful ritards as do many of his earlier ones, but rather plays better in the manner of late Mozart and, more specifically, Beethoven’s also very classical and taut Eighth Symphony. Like the Beethoven, Dvořák’s Eighth is the brightest and most youthful sounding of all his symphonies; it doesn’t want to be lingered over with deeply felt expression as was the case here, especially in the final two movements. The orchestra, now slightly shorter of personnel, played it well but at moments lost some of its earlier energy. Given the demands of the Prokofiev it’s just possible that some of the players were a bit spent.

The concert will be broadcast on KUSP 89.9 on March 14.