Monterey Symphony with Elmar Oliveira

By Scott MacClelland

MAX BRAGADO-DARMAN conducted his Monterey orchestra in a decidedly retro 19th century program last Saturday in Carmel. The enthusiastic full-house audience at Sunset Center left an odd déjà-vu impression to some of us as if they, the audience, were hearing this music for the first time. No doubt many were. But nobody seemed to question the fact that none of this music was of their time, our time, or our place.

It was both weird and exhilarating, especially in light of the Symphony’s last program, which was very much of our time and place. So what do long-dead German composers have to do with us here and now? What was Bragado thinking?

One of his thoughts must have been that these works, by Mendelssohn, Bruch and Schumann, have fallen so far below the event horizon that—gamble, gamble—they might just work as total surprises. He might also have figured that fading memories of his older subscribers would facilitate a similar outcome.

I think both were true, and I’m pretty sure most of the younger audience members would have been on the side of surprises.

Mendelssohn’s Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage concert overture is a pale and forgettable piece compared with his stormy Hebrides Overture, and must have been there only to remind the audience that the entire season pivoted on an oceanic theme. It was also a missed opportunity for some 20th century gems, like Carl Nielsen’s Journey to the Faroe Islands or Einojuhani Rautavaara’s Cantus Arcticus.

Meanwhile, along came violinist Elmar Oliveira to perform Max Bruch’s Concerto in G Minor (1866), the most virile of 19th century violin concertos that, despite being a longtime matinee favorite, hasn’t gotten nearly its due in U.S. concerts or recordings for decades. Here Oliveira was unleashed to display his full masculine artistry. In the Age of Women, his swagger heated the blood in my veins.

(In attendance were locally-based international conductor Stewart Robertson and his wife Meryl. Now retired, Stewart Robertson had a close working relationship with Oliveira in Florida where, in 2012, they recorded the rarely heard Schumann violin concerto for Oliveria’s Artek label.)

Having gained unusual fame for his cello setting of Kol Nidrei, the atonement prayer sung by Jews on Yom Kippur, it soon became common to assume that Bruch was Jewish. (Symphony program annotator Alicia Mastromonaco said as much in her notes.) Not having ever found corroboration on that point, I asked Mastromonaco where she turned up that claim. I tried to follow her lead to no avail. In fact, the Wikipedia article about Bruch makes a strong point that there is no evidence to support that theory, literally going back generations of Bruch ancestors. 

Why does it matter? In this era of political populism the flames of identity politics are being fanned at a furious rate, pitting entire social, ethnic and racial populations against one another. Finger-pointing can quickly turn to violence. (A brawl broke out between black and Hispanic students at Seaside High School last week.) To make matters more tense, the American conductor Leon Botstein, who is known for the chips on his shoulder, published an article about Max Bruch whose headline called him “anti-Semitic.” (Click HERE)  

Bragado’s choice of Schumann’s Symphony in D Minor certainly underscored the spirit of the Symphony’s “Sound Waves” season. The piece is a real swashbuckler, with strongly accented rhythms and cadences. The original version, from 1841, leaps with joy, but was suppressed by the composer until a revised, expanded and sobered-up version in 1851. (For comparison, you can hear both on John Eliot Gardiner’s set of Schumann symphonies on Archiv label.) Moreover, material heard in the boisterous first movement is recycled in the subsequent three movements that, except for a full stop between the second and third movements, are tied together giving the work an organic, spontaneous character. While largely macho, the symphony also has its tender moments, as with the magical fairy music from the composer’s oratorio Paradise and the Peri that opens the second movement and its seductive violin solo, lovingly played by concertmaster Christina Mok.

In taking up the cause of Robert Schumann’s symphonies, Max Bragado has reminded his audiences here of their originality and influence, especially how they laid the foundation on which the composer’s protégé Johannes Brahms built so many of his great works. As Bragado said during a phone conversation in February of 2018, at the time of performing Schumann’s Symphony in C Major, “I have always considered it as one of the greatest challenges for orchestras and conductors.”