By Roger Emanuels
It was a lovely Sunday afternoon at the Mello Center in Watsonville as the Santa Cruz Symphony, led by Daniel Stewart, performed a diverse program that covered three centuries of great masterpieces. Soprano Ying Fang was the guest artist featured in the first half. And there were spotlights on several regular players in the orchestra. The intimacy of JS Bach’s Weichet nur, betrübte Schatten, BWV 202, the “Wedding” Cantata, which opened the program, was a huge contrast to the grandiose statements of Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique that occupied the entire second half. Sandwiched in between was the sensuous and rhythmic Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5 by Heitor Villa-Lobos.
Soprano Ying Fang (photo by Dario Acosta) has a big sound and very focused intonation, which makes her voice ring. Her career in opera is evident in the projection she achieves with ease. This secular cantata by Bach was composed to celebrate a wedding, and it does that elegantly, featuring soprano, solo oboe, solo violin and strings. Principal oboist Bennie Cottone played beautifully, first in the opening aria, and again in a joyful and festive duet with Ms. Fang. Concertmaster Kristina Anderson accompanied the soprano in another aria. Principal cellist Ellen Sanders provided an energetic bass line and was rhythmically solid in several solo passages. The small string section displayed a well-blended sound, with no rough edges. And as a nod to period playing, all used vibrato discretely. The performance was a delight to hear.
The Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos was greatly influenced by the music of JS Bach. Combining that with melody and rhythm of his homeland, he created several works in a series entitled Bachianas Brasileiras. Each is for a different group of instruments and reflects compositional techniques used by Bach while simultaneously echoing Brazilian melodic and rhythmic characteristics. Number 5 is for soprano and eight cellos. Fang again filled the hall with rich sound, blending well with the cellos, perhaps with a better balance here than in the Bach cantata. Unusual in vocal music, at the conclusion of the first movement (Aria/Cantilena), the soprano must hum with “mouth closed” as indicated in the score. Anyone who has tried to hum a melody such as this one understands the challenge, especially the final note, a very high one. It was there. The orchestra of eight cellos played with great rhythmic articulation and good pitch. Principal Ellen Sanders was comfortable in her rendition of a melody that is reminiscent of the Air from the third orchestral suite by Bach, but in a Brazilian style.
As he did in the program’s first half, the maestro appeared without score or baton for the final work, the Berlioz Fantastique. Written only six years after Beethoven’s grand Symphony No. 9, and showing strong influences from that iconic work, Berlioz takes the genre to yet another level, with music that is programmatically descriptive.
The opening movement was dreamy and passionate, expressed by the strings, winds and brass. The festive waltz in the second movement featured the sparkling addition of two harps. The centerpiece of the symphony is the consoling pastoral third movement. Principal oboist Cottone played from backstage in dialog with the English horn of Max Hollander onstage, representing shepherds. Toward the end of the country scene the kettledrums make a menacing appearance, requiring two players on eight drums to represent an approaching storm. Conductor Stewart took this moment to emphasize the dramatic elements leading to the fourth movement, March to the Scaffold. Drums and low brass predominate as the main character in the story, the besotted composer himself, has a vision of being led to his own beheading by the guillotine. The closing Dream of the Witches’ Sabbath provided the orchestra with opportunities for dramatic and sudden shifts in mood, as Stewart created a sense of urgency, bringing out the ominous Dies Irae, or song of death, in the low brass which included two tubas in addition to the three trombones. As the witches’ fury increases, the string players use the col legno technique, where they hit the string with the wood of the bow, creating a sound like the rattling of bones. The fugue was played with good articulation, creating a momentum that grabbed the listener as the music rushed to its howling conclusion.
Berlioz was not a virtuoso on any one instrument as so many composers have been. Instead, he became a virtuoso composer for orchestra, changing the course of symphonic writing. The Santa Cruz Symphony under Daniel Stewart performed with virtuosity and skill.