Santa Cruz Symphony

By Scott MacClelland

SUNDAY’S SC SYMPHONY concert in Watsonville gained heightened urgency with the news that music director Daniel Stewart’s contract had just been extended by five years. Of course, most of the audience wouldn’t have known that. But they would have known of the massacre in Paris when Stewart began the concert, without a word of explanation, by leading the orchestra in La Marseillaise. The full-house rose to its feet in sympathy for the grievous injury inflicted on civilization itself by desperate people systematically denied it—without remorse—by those in power in the Middle East. (One woman in the audience confided that it made her cry.)

Confusingly titled “Existential Worlds,” Stewart’s program sandwiched Schubert’s “Unfinished” Symphony between an André Caplet orchestration of Debussy’s Clair de lune and Saint-Saëns’ First Cello Concerto. The sensational Danzón No. 2 by Mexican composer Arturo Márquez, a new fave among symphonic orchestras all over, didn’t bring further clarity to the title “Existential Worlds” in any literal sense but set the house rocking to its Latino rhythms and Technicolor orchestration. In all cases the music enjoyed a fine realization by Stewart.

And he accepted the invitation of Caplet’s lush arrangement to savor and indulge the inherent sonorities and individual pointillisms of his highly capable musicians. Caplet’s Clair de lune, originally a piano morsel, became a sensual tone poem under Stewart’s baton, far removed from its composer’s original Baroque-echoed impulse.

At 16, Zlatomir Fung has garnered an astonishing collection of competition medals and zlatomir fungawards, not least top prize at the 2014 Irving M. Klein international string competition in San Francisco. His website proclaims them along with a list of his cello teachers, but deftly conceals his personal life—as should be the case with any home-schooled teenager. Zlatomir is obviously a Slavic name; Fung is Chinese or, perhaps, Singaporean. In any case, his talent has been carefully cultivated. As Mitchell Sardou Klein, director of the Klein competition and a former conductor of the Santa Cruz Symphony kindly reported to me, Fung “is a riveting performer, who delves deeply into the composer’s ideas and sensibilities. He played the Schumann Concerto with me and the Peninsula Symphony last season, a performance that was deeply affecting and beautiful.”

The 20-minute Saint-Saëns concerto is pretty slight stuff, notwithstanding the composer’s unique penchant for making up odd new twists on the traditional classical forms. What it does demand, however, is technically flawless execution. And here Fung delivered hands down. Schumann would demand more depth of personal expression; Shostakovich vastly more. But for the moment, this was a spectacular performance. We will have to wait to see how well this young musician develops into a mature artist. Stewart’s orchestra was no less polished.

Before intermission, the Schubert symphony, the odd man in this program, got a sensitively shaped and imaginative reading under Stewart’s direction. Given the work’s overexposure on classical radio, it could have exploded old habits and shocked with unexpected adventure, but at the risk of distorting its classical roots and subtle romantic impulses. In short, Stewart and his orchestra honored both to fine effect. Historic records indicates that this was only one of several unfinished symphonies by a composer who was dead by age 31. This piece consists of a sonata in 3/4 time and a sonatina (lacking development) in 3/8 meter, an uncommon construct for a Classical symphony. But each offers a wealth of ideas and, unique for its time in a symphony, melodies galore. It certainly was the weightiest piece of the program and ultimately the most satisfying.

The most fun came last in the Márquez, with its rollicking rhythms and wide dynamic range. Smiles painted the faces of many of the orchestra musicians. As a harp scintillated Clair de lune, a piano sparked the orchestra for Danzón 2.