Rebecca Miller ignites the Santa Cruz Symphony
By Scott MacClelland
Even if the name is unfamiliar, putting this now-much-sought-after conductor on the short list to replace retiring music director John Larry Granger comes with a background whiff of déjà-vu. At least for Rebecca Miller, who left her native Santa Cruz to gain fame in Britain, Mexico and Korea, and in CD recordings of music by several familiar Cabrillo Festival composers, not least its founder, Lou Harrison. Sunday, at the Mello Center in Watsonville, she made clear that she is a thoroughly seasoned pro, highly energetic and plainly ambitious. If she continues to conduct with such callisthenic energy, she’ll remain physically fit for decades to come. Her personal choreography may be distracting to some in the audience (including me) but its syntax remains highly communicative on both sides of the proscenium.
Miller’s program followed the traditional template: overture—concerto—symphony. Kodály’s Galánta Dances served as the overture, followed by Beethoven’s “Emperor” piano concerto and Dvořák’s Sixth Symphony. The sold-out house cheered each in turn, and with good cause. The orchestra, groomed and disciplined for two decades by visionary taskmaster Granger, took Miller’s bait with gusto. The vividly colored Kodály gets the most dazzling orchestra effects of the three works on offer. Its first theme opened with the rich sonority of the cello section in unison, echoed by solo horn. Folk dances being the substance here, many cameo solos took center stage, the most folkloric sounding among them on the clarinet of Karen Sremac who persuasively revealed the rustic sway of the music. Miller’s leadership was solid and unequivocal, although, in this piece, she might have gotten an even more vivid reading by exaggerating dynamic contrasts toward the softer end of the spectrum.
Veteran keyboard artist Hans Boepple, well known for his performances in this area of California, returned to play Beethoven’s Concerto in E-flat. His was a grandly extrovert conception that alternated with quiet circumspection. The orchestra started its part boldly, but allowed moments of ensemble uncertainty early on, as if the piece had been underrehearsed. Those glitches passed quickly and left the concerto otherwise unruffled. The second movement, in B, opened with hymnlike chords, while the piano, at its entrance played a loving melody, the most thoughtful and dreamy interlude of the entire concert. The final rondo kicked the performance back into high gear and drew a standing ovation.
In opening the Dvořák symphony, Miller exchanged the ‘non tanto’ of the opening allegro for a big dollop of ‘vivace’. This notching up of energy predicted, rightly, a similar response in the last two movements. I think she made the right choice. This work could carry the sobriquet “Sea Change.” You’re not really sure it’s Dvořák in the first two movements, but there is no doubt at all about the last two. It’s as if the composer spent his first five and a half symphonies looking for his voice, then suddenly finding it when he came to this one’s scherzo. It has Slavonic dance written all over it. Indeed, from 1880 it followed the publication of the composer’s first Big Hit, the initial set of Slavonic Dances, just two years earlier. Miller launched the scherzo at the full presto the composer called for. It’s lyrical ‘trio’ section, as seductive as a Bohemian maid dancing in a spring meadow, featured several cameo solos. The finale, charged with vigorous themes and recalling those of the first movement, uses tempo to great effect; fast episodes are pitted against broad ones, pacing its progress to a thrilling conclusion. The volley of cheers that followed, and a full house on its feet, instantly acknowledged a splendid reading.