By Scott MacClelland
A SOLO ARTIST PLAYING A CONCERTO is usually a bigger draw than a symphonic program without one. What a thrilling exception to that old ‘rule’ when Daniel Stewart conducted the Santa Cruz Symphony at Watsonville’s Mello Center on Sunday afternoon in a virtuoso display from start to finish. The Santa Cruz team of musicians took obvious confidence from a conductor who, with laser-etched technical authority and equally focused podium charisma, also gave the full-house audience a master class in what a podium artist is supposed to do.
Titled “Embracing the Dance,” this second outing of the Symphony’s current season fulfilled that promise with John Adams’ The Chairman Dances, the suite of Symphonic Dances from Leonard Bernstein’s Westside Story and Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, the one Richard Wagner described as “the apotheosis of the dance.” The first two required much extra brass and percussion—plus saxophone, cor anglais, bass clarinet and piano.
Adams’ “foxtrot for orchestra” never actually made it into Nixon in China, the 1987 opera that inspired it. But it soon became a favorite standalone with classical orchestras and remains one of the most popular examples of minimalist-style music to this day. The foxtrot itself, a sort-of waltz in 4/4 time, was famous (in the 1930s) for its long, smooth choreographic phrasing. At 13 minutes, Adams clearly had that in mind. But it’s a tricky piece with its minimalist repetitions continually passing from one section of the orchestra to another, often going in both directions at the same time. Wisely, the composer enhanced its audience appeal with large changes of mood, some bright and aggressive, others shadowed and circumspect, and wide dynamic contrasts.
To do his job properly, Stewart had to display a keen sense of balance, dynamics and tempo, plus drawing out essential details—a great many in the six-member percussion department—which, with a less skilled hand on the podium, could easily get lost in the constant motion and general turbulence of the piece. As SC audiences have come to expect, Stewart seemed to be everywhere at once, tossing out cues like a Las Vegas poker dealer, and reveling in the way his musicians played their hands. No hesitation or uncertainty was detectable and none of the counterpoint blurred.
The Bernstein score, concentrated on its fabulous variety of Latin American dance rhythms, posed another challenge: the music had to swing. If there was a boundary between Stewart and his Big Band of musicians, I couldn’t perceive it. Still, he needed to maintain his position as leader, adjust the pace and dynamics and define the line around which everything had to gravitate. One of the musicians, recalling the conductor-search season that produced Stewart, told me the candidates “were all good,” but that Stewart was “the best fit.”
With all of the extra brass, percussion, et al. gone, the Beethoven fell entirely to the tried and true classical orchestra. The strings carried the larger burden and, in this case, sounded as full-bodied and rich as I can recall from any Monterey Bay orchestra in recent years, including the annual Bach and Cabrillo festivals. No doubt some of the credit must go to the Mello acoustics, but I am guessing Stewart, concertmaster Nigel Armstrong and the string players themselves have made a project of digging deeper into their inherent sonorities and overtones. However done, what a fabulous result!
Each of the four movements of the Seventh Symphony is animated by rhythm. Not just the usual 3/4 and 4/4, but generous syncopations and, more often than not, dotted rhythms with strong and weak combinations that set toes to tapping. Yet this is not an easy piece to pull off. Paul Goodwin did it at the Bach Festival in 2015 and though it satisfied the basic requirements failed to catch fire. Much better was guest conductor Farkhad Khudyev’s performance with the Monterey Symphony in February of 2016. (Khudyev brings a lot more imagination to the job plus a keener sense of himself as an artist.)
Among the treacheries of this popular work is a tendency with some conductors to allow the strong rhythmic pulse to grow heavy (pesante, in Italian notation) and ponderous, sometimes, sadly, at the expense of the very source of energy, its rhythms. It seems counterintuitive, yet I’ve heard it happen on too many occasions.
Happily, not here. Once again, Stewart scaled the dynamics, brought out the inner voices—much to the pleasure of the violas and the wind players—and organized his approach around a leading musical line. He did it all by heart and, at 38 minutes, gave one of the shortest accounts in memory. The final movement is often where the undesirable chickens come home to roost. But not this time. At high speed he never allowed that pulse to go ponderous. It was fleet, transparent and, yes, hair raising, just what every Beethoven lover wants to hear.
The winds, brass and timpani are equal partners to the strings in the classical style and deserve their due of credit. (Stewart is always careful to ask his players to stand for applause, individually or by choir.) This concert took the audience into its grip with no equivocation. The orchestra was sensational from beginning to end, and particularly spectacular in the opulent Adams and Bernstein scores.