Santa Cruz Symphony

Danny and Michelle

By Scott MacClelland

PEOPLE ASK ME if an orchestra really needs a conductor. My short answer is no. Before some guy stood up to wave a stick, orchestras were led by a musician playing a keyboard or a violin. Today, the concertmaster of an orchestra is still the nominal “leader,” whose second job is to take over if the conductor becomes incapacitated or—more likely—momentarily confused. (It happens more often than you might think.) The award-winning Orpheus, a leader among American chamber orchestras, has always performed without a conductor. I heard them in Monterey in the 1970s. Then, last Sunday in Watsonville, I heard the Santa Cruz Symphony with its conductor, Daniel Stewart, in charge.

In both cases, orchestra members played polished cameo solos that stood out. The difference came down to whether or not the big picture was projected through a single lens. For Orpheus, despite all the beautiful playing, the answer was no. With the Symphony, Danny Stewart was that lens. For me that makes the difference.

However, it is no guarantee of realizing the best an orchestra can do. Stewart happens to be uncommonly successful at getting the best from his musicians. As a result the Santa Cruz Symphony has become one of the premiere orchestras of the greater Central California region. That it operates with a $1 million budget, far smaller than other orchestras in the greater SF Bay Area, seems only to underscore Stewart’s impact.

On Sunday, Stewart conducted the entire program from memory. For some conductors, that amounts to little more than showing off. (Why memorize an obscure symphony by, say, Amy Beach, that you will never have another chance to perform?) But not here. Wagner’s Meistersinger Prelude, a tapestry of themes from that opera—“music drama” the composer insisted on calling it—is woven into often dense textures of counterpoint that demand clarity at all times. In this case, the challenge falls equally to the conductor and the musicians, and, frankly, not every lick came through with crystalline transparency in the Mello Center’s acoustically friendly environment.

Still, the pageantry of that ten-minute introduction was well-conveyed and, for anyone familiar with the four-hour-plus drama to follow, laid out a great temptation for more.

In kind, the Four Last Songs for soprano and orchestra by Richard Strauss—arguably a summa to the Wagner—made no less demands of the conductor and nearly as much of the orchestra, to say nothing of Michelle Bradley, a rising star of the Metropolitan Opera who was making good her third appearance here.

‘Good’ is an understatement. Bradley filled the Mello with her radiant golden sound. Her phrasing and breath control were, well, breathtaking. And this too is almost an understatement since Strauss, as my companion, also a professional opera soprano, remarked, “gives you no place to breathe.” These four songs, to highly personal verses—the first three by Hermann Hesse, the last by Joseph von Eichendorff—are about old age and impending death, as indeed the 84-year-old Strauss was inevitably contemplating. And what a death! This music soars with a beatific vision of eternity. It makes you forget about the lifetime of creative craft that lies beneath its composer’s art, while simultaneously reminding you of those fabulous arching scenes and ensembles from Der Rosenkavalier, composed nearly 40 years earlier.

Stewart must have studied performances and recordings by other conductors, but with this orchestra, and its fine concertmaster Nigel Armstrong, he made it his own. Just as the soloist must immerse herself in long, seamless phrases, so must the orchestra, which responded with restrained grandeur and ascendant dignity.

A special kudo to program annotator Don Adkins for his in-depth study of Strauss, his relationship with the Nazis, and the loss of 32 of his Jewish daughter-in-law’s family at the Terezin concentration camp during the holocaust.

Then came the movie: Rimsky-Korsakov’s Technicolor masterpiece, Scheherazade. In true story-telling mode, this narrative without words, ends the same way it begins, with a stentorian call to attention. That proves hardly necessary given the inspired themes and melodies, sweeping vistas, abrupt changes of mood and direction, the tense cinematic build-ups and the irresistible symphonic sonorities that pour from all sections of the orchestra. Yet even among Rimsky’s many vivacious operas and orchestral works this one belongs in a class by itself, thanks to the almost endless parade of solo cameos that engage all the first-desk players and many others. Chief among them is the solo violin, which narrates the procession of tales told by the heroine to enthrall her murderous bridegroom and, thereby, save her life. When Armstrong took his many turns in that solo role he did so on his own terms. Stewart simply stood back and savored those moments, often with a broad smile on his face. In fact, he gave those solos throughout the orchestra plenty of individual latitude, a rarity among less-confident orchestra conductors.

But Stewart, whose podium choreographer is filled with unguarded joy, keeps a firm hand on balances, dynamics, phrasing, entries and cut-offs, and the big picture, that essential image that can come only from a singular vision.

Happily, this piece has since inspired, and continues to inspire, other orchestral works that flatter orchestras, their different sections and their individual musicians. Rimsky composed Scheherazade exactly 130 years ago, yet on Sunday in Watsonville it was as fresh and invigorated as when its executants got up that morning and prepared to go to work.