Santa Cruz Symphony “Ascendance”

By Scott MacClelland

SINCE ASCENDING the podium of the Santa Cruz Symphony, Daniel Stewart has already established a legacy that any successor here will find daunting. Sunday’s concisely staged production at the Mello in Watsonville kept focus riveted on the music itself. Stewart has a flair for surprises and the skill to draw audiences in on his terms.

But first, I had to look past the ambiguous title, “Ascendance,” of the Symphony’s 62nd season opening program and directly to the menu on offer: Mason Bates’ Mothership (2011), Stravinsky’s suite (1919) from the ballet Firebird (1910) and Beethoven’s Piano Concerto in E-flat “Emperor,” which premiered in 1811 in Leipzig. Bates was himself electronica-soloist in Mothership and the superb Jon Nakamatsu in the Beethoven.

Program annotator Don Adkins cited a recent survey that anointed American composers John Adams and Mason Bates as the most frequently performed in America. What sets the two apart immediately is Bates’ incorporation of electronic (synthesized) sonorities into the fabric of orchestral music, discretely as it turns out in Mothership. His role in the nine-minute concert sizzler was to provide an amplified percussive presence that underscored this tone-picture of a subway train ride in New York. Heavily thunking beats and pulses enhanced the impact of the piece, that speeded up between stops and slowed down to allow riders to leave and enter in their journeys to who-knows-where. It was hard not to recall Adams’ Short Ride on a Fast Machine but with a fresh and original character that drew a standing ovation from the room’s large audience. The piece was also its own miniature ‘concerto for orchestra,’ dotted with various concertante solos and two big ones: concertmaster Nigel Armstrong getting down with country fiddle and uptown trumpeter Matthew Ebisuzaki from closer to Harlem. The memorable impact lay in its propulsive energy and its variety of instrumental colors. As for new music, give me visceral in balance with intellectual, with the balance here tilted in favor of visceral.

Stravinsky’s Firebird is all about magic and its concert suite, when well done, rubs the genie’s bottle in just the right way. Stewart had exactly that in mind when he set out to conjure a spell. (He is much better than many conductors familiar to me at controlling dynamics—loud opposite quiet—to create suspense and, equally important, to stay in character.) This skill held the audience entranced with all of the composer’s sleight of hand, most especially in the ultra-mysterious Berceuse between Kastchei’s violent dance and the final crescendo. Stewart got his orchestra down to a whisper and held it there, allowing Stravinsky’s shimmering tricks to pull the audience in as if it were being entrusted with a secret.

In the Beethoven concerto the surprises were all in the music itself, the simplest of ideas elaborated into ever-startling refractions. Yet, the piece always has the feel of being spontaneous, improvised in the moment. That seems to be how Beethoven launched many of his own premieres, concertos in which the solo part hadn’t yet been written out. (In this case, however, Beethoven did not play the premiere, as Adkins observed.) Indeed, the opening of the 40-minute work has the soloist make stuff up in a series of outrageous improvisations that follow loud chords on the orchestra, before it finally gets down to the business at hand. Then begins the journey, a 20-minute first movement that honors the classical sonata-allegro form, then takes delight in violating it. One passage on the piano has two clashing ideas at once: a soaring theme in the right hand and a descending chromatic annoyance in the left. I don’t know of a precedence for it.

For all its simplistic ideas, the concerto gives its soloist and conductor a boatload of decisions to be made on the fly. Getting through the technical demands to the level of art is no small achievement. Yet art won out, simultaneously cool and hot. Physically, Nakamatsu is a very small person, but he has that singer’s spinto ability to power up for the big moments. He also possesses great imagination and, like Stewart, no shortage of flair.

To thank the audience for its cheering applause, he offered an encore: a sneaky, cheeky The Entertainer by Scott Joplin. For this, there was precedence. Beethoven invented ragtime. Don’t believe me? Listen to his Bagatelle in B minor, Op. 126, No. 4.

Backstage photos by James de Leon