Monterey Symphony

By Scott MacClelland

What a welcome treat to hear two splendid but overlooked pieces by Mozart and Beethoven: the only known-to-exist concerto for bassoon by the former and the Fourth Symphony by the latter. Second that enthusiasm with even more for podium guest Alvaro Cossuto (pictured), a master musician as both conductor and composer alvaro-cassutowith a worldwide reputation, and the young Spanish soloist Ignacio Soler Pérez—he turns 23 this year—in the Mozart.

There’s no such thing as a less-than-great Beethoven symphony, even though popularity too often pits one against another. Popularity is also a victim of familiarity. (The Sunset Center audience on Sunday thinned noticeably during the interval between the Mozart and the Beethoven.) But the work got a robust and at times thrilling performance by the Monterey Symphony under its Portuguese conductor. The man who perfected the classical symphony and string quartet, Joseph Haydn, was all about the  trickery of creating expectations then dashing them; all of his symphonies could be called “Surprise” symphonies. Beethoven went even further with his. In the Fourth, he uses the common Baroque/Classical device of sequencing (playing the same short phrase over and over, each a step up or down) but super-charges the effect by making the phrase highly angular or compressing and accelerating its tempo, provoking exhilaration among his listeners. With Cossuto in charge, that was certainly the result. The piece sparkled with its own infectious tricks of rhythm, eruptions and jokes. Beethoven must have made himself laugh out loud at his clever turns of phrase. (At least he did that for me, though I kept my guffaws quiet so as not to disturb others.)

The Mozart concerto opens with an almost-rustic character, heavy with the lower winds and strings as if to give encouragement to the solo bassoon, an instrument that while essential to the orchestra rarely gets a chance in the spotlight. The orchestration alone sheds light on the 18-year-old composer’s remarkable instincts for timbre and context. (Still in Salzburg, he was also in the midst of writing his five violin concertos, whose textures are quite different as befits the solo instrument.) Soler Pérez produced a beautiful tone as he swayed back and forth to the magic of the music. He also flowered in the solo cadenzas of the first two movements, and took pleasure in the final rondo when he, at last, got his chance to croon the rondo theme itself shortly before the end.

Cassuto’s program began with Ravel’s Le tombeau de Couperin—thanks to ‘classical radio’ the most overexposed piece on the program. It also got the highest performance polish of the afternoon, as demanded by its delicacy. (You can rough up Mozart and Beethoven to a degree but that would only violate Ravel.) In particular, the winds must achieve and sustain a fragility of naked exposure. And this they did, as in the Forlane where, three times, a descending phrase attaches an exquisite other-worldly dissonance worthy of the Baroque harpsichord masters of Ravel’s homage. Cossuto shushed the strings when the winds were at the center of the action. And his body language moved according to the sensual shifts of character, moment to moment, especially in the final Rigaudon.

Being typically ungenerous of spirit toward his rivals, Igor Stravinsky called Ravel a “Swiss watchmaker.” Yet both composers conceal their personal emotions behind disguising façades. Where Stravinsky shocks and challenges irresistibly, Ravel seduces irresistibly. Please don’t ask me to choose between them.        

The concert will be broadcast by KUSP.88.9 on April 11, 8pm.