By Scott MacClelland
SOMEONE ASKED ME about the Russian folk songs in Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, the piece that concluded the Monterey Symphony’s 72nd season with a bang—several bangs actually, on three bass drums, crash cymbals and bells—on Sunday afternoon in Carmel. This answer could have been in the program notes, but I had to look it up. Indeed, the piece opens on the lower strings with “Spasi, Gospodi, lyudi tvoya” (Lord, Save Thy People); a bit later, the folksong “U vorot, vorot” (At the Gate), and finally, “Bozhe, Tsarya khrani” (God save the Tsar), which, not surprisingly, has the last word.
In amongst them is the French national anthem, La Marseillaise. This was, after all, the composer’s 1880 celebratory piece about the battle of Borodino between the Russian Army and Napoleon’s imperial forces, won by Napoleon but at horrific cost. “General Winter,” as the Russians call it, crushed Bonaparte (see Charles Joseph Minard’s famous graphic below, click on it to enlarge), as it would do the same to Hitler’s Russian shootout at Stalingrad and its gory aftermath in 1943. (Only about 6,000 German solders of at least 200,000 would return home.)
Tchaikovksy himself grew to loathe the piece, or rather its popularity. Yet no one has ever grown tired of Prokofiev’s “Classical” Symphony, of 1917, that conductor Max Bragado-Darman chose to open the program. At first I thought he was taking the tempos too tentatively—as against the brisk paces favored by many conductors today, until I realized that, at 14 minutes performance time, he was exactly on par. More important, his musicians brought out details that are often lost in brisker performances. The piece is more complex and subtle than many listeners realize yet no less witty than Beethoven’s Eighth Symphony, in just half the time.
The piano soloist for the program, Philippe Bianconi, played two works, Liszt’s vulgar, bombastic and ultimately superficial Piano Concerto No 2, and, in its Monterey Bay premiere, Manuel de Falla’s moody, mysterious, seductive Noches en los jardines de España (Nights in the Gardens of Spain). As required by the Liszt, Bianconi was compelled to pound the bombastic stuff, but did demonstrate his delicate touch in the filigree. Falla’s piece, which uses the piano more as a concertante element, is as Spanish as its composer yet as impressionistic as Debussy’s La mer and Nocturnes. Melodic and rhythmic flavors of flamenco move in and out of the shadows.
In both works there were some lovely string solos, notably by principal cellist Adelle-Akiko Kearns in the Liszt, and, in the Falla, Kearns, concertmaster Christina Mok and principal violist David Allcott. (There may have been a solo in the second violins, but the piano lid blocked my view of that section.)
We detailed Bragado’s penultimate season highlights in our Weekly Magazine last week. He and his orchestra have some truly adventurous programs on offer.