Santa Cruz Symphony “Horizons”

By Scott MacClelland

JUST TWO WORKS comprised the Santa Cruz Symphony concert titled “Horizons,” heard Sunday in Watsonville; Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Violin Concerto and Antonín Dvořák’s Symphony No. 7. The Salonen concerto opened the performance with soloist Nigel Armstrong making a brilliant argument for the work. Meanwhile, program annotator Don Adkins quoted the composer, “When I had written the very last chord of the piece I felt confused.” He wasn’t alone.

That last chord concluded the four-movement—fast-slow-fast-slow—32-minute concerto, composed in 2009 for the Canadian-born violinist Leila Josefowicz, who premiered it with the LA Phil and Salonen who was just concluding his 17-year tenure there as its music director. After expressing his ‘confusion’ Salonen went on to propose that the last chord “…belonged to a different composition. That chord is a beginning of something new.”

The idea suggests that the concerto is a transitional piece. In a way that is true since his stated reason to leave LA was to devote more time to composition. (That sojourn may change when he takes up the music directorship of the San Francisco Symphony.) In effect, the Violin Concerto kicked off a decade’s worth of composing, though the fruits of those labors have been few and far between. (A major piece from that period is the Cello Concerto of 2017 which was written for and dedicated to Yo-Yo Ma. Nyx for orchestra dates from 2010.)

The concerto opened with Armstrong playing vigorous arpeggiated figures over the sound of delicate bell tones. The movement, titled Mirage, put the soloist through a range of calisthenics but, with some mysterious growling, held the orchestra down to more of a sonic background presence, sometimes more static, others more energized. Some of the fiddle work sounded like Arvo Pärt’s Fratres, as would continue to be the case later in the third movement. The second movement, Pulse I, emerged out of the first, with tuned gongs, a deliberately delicate effect underpinning the darkly dreaming violin with a dirge-like pulse. The solo instrument sang a lonely melody, often unaccompanied. In Pulse II, the third movement, Armstrong’s violin had battle to do with an eruptive orchestra, sizzling with energy and including a drum set borrowed from some rock music, yet only in brief bursts. The program note comments on its “bizarre and urban” character and “traces of (synthetic) folk music.” Snatches of film music by James Newton Howard syncopated the textures, with added flavors of West Side Story.

The finale, Adieu, began, like the opening movement, with a solo violin, and the orchestra serving up cameo compliments—cor anglais, oboe, flute, cello. The dirge soon restored the pace. A percussion outroar from Stravinsky’s Le sacre du printemps gave the orchestra added muscle though it still took a largely passive role. Double stops and glissandos on the solo violin continued its dark musings. The concerto won the prestigious Grawemeyer Prize in 2012. The concerto’s unusual sound world depends on many innovative combinations and effects. One orchestra member remarked to me that the piece sounded like it was composed by a conductor.

The Symphony No 7 in D Minor remains Dvořák’s greatest work in the form, notwithstanding the popularity of the Eighth and “New World” Ninth. It strikes the perfect balance between the Brahmsian ideal and the composer’s own Bohemian origins, the latter especially included in the first and third movements. After the big climax of the first movement, conductor Daniel Stewart pulled off an excellent diminuendo, a specialty in his ‘dynamics’ toolbox. Conducting from memory, he shaped the Poco adagio slow movement with soulful expression that Brahms would most likely have praised. The Scherzo’s exuberant dance sandwiched a trio section that was strangely mysterious, almost the opposite of the same movement in the Eighth Symphony. No one could complain that this feast was in any way less than bountiful.

The concert is slated for broadcast on KKUP 91.5 FM on December 6 at 1pm.   

Photo by James de Leon