SANTA CRUZ COUNTY SYMPHONY music director Daniel Stewart is still feeling his way. And I’m not sure he’s getting the kind of pushback from the Symphony administration that would help. For starters, the first half of Sunday’s concert, at the Mello Center in Watsonville, consisted of 15 minutes of talk by Stewart followed by 18 minutes of music. For that ratio I wouldn’t have driven the 40 minutes to get there, but the program did intrigue me: Leonard Bernstein’s Slava! A Political Overture (four minutes), Beethoven’s Egmont Overture (eight minutes) and Henry Mollicone’s Celestial Dance (six minutes).
But by far the greatest success of the afternoon was Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony, a masterpiece that even today remains controversial and misunderstood. The 48-minute work was premiered in 1937 in Leningrad (now again St. Petersburg) with conductor Yevgeny Mravinsky. Having been condemned the year before in Pravda for his lurid but extremely popular opera, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, the composer wrote an apologia for the symphony that is anything but clear. What is clear in its dark expressiveness is the satire and even mockery that belie his mea culpa. Or is it clear? Mravinsky himself didn’t get the parody of the ‘triumphant’ final movement. (For these reasons, my nickname for the symphony would be “Tragic.”)
Stewart was never more deeply immersed and authoritative. Conducting from memory, he and his orchestra gave a thrilling account that at times gave this old curmudgeon goosebumps. (It was this very work that brought the Santa Cruz Symphony to its artistic majority when Oleg Kovalenko, a brief music director candidate, conducted an incendiary performance of it at Cocoanut Gove in the early 1980s.)
Stewart has previously asserted that playing the piece as a youth orchestra violist inspired him to become a conductor. In one sense, this symphony makes the conductor’s job easy, in that it delivers an unflagging gush of inspiration and craftsmanship. (Not so with many of the other 14 Shostakovich symphonies.) But it does not play itself, so all credit to Stewart for setting a grand vision and, with the orchestra fully up to it, making it come together so splendidly.
Bernstein’s Slava! was his tribute to Mstislav Rostropovich, the great cellist whose outspoken criticism of the Soviet Kremlin cost him his Russian passport. The short piece is one loud hoot, with tunes from the failed musical 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and taped snippets of empty political speeches. (It’s even more blatantly satirical than the Shostakovich.)
The disappointment of the day was the Egmont Overture, which like the Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 of last season, found Stewart far out of his comfort zone. This piece, like so much of Beethoven, gets its impact from strong dynamic contrasts. Stewart’s dynamic range here was inexplicably narrow. He could not get the explosive fortissimos because he never approached them from whispered pianissimos. The other missing element was pacing, like wide dynamics, that ‘sneaking up’ on crescendos and climaxes that are the stuff of Beethovenian musical theatrics. Instead of gripping heroics, this reading was flat.
Mollicone’s Celestial Dance revealed yet another facet to the Bay Area composer’s protean imagination and often-astonishing craft. Its exoticism took me by surprise. The dance was really two contrasting dances, representing Shiva and Brahma from the Hindu pantheon, respectively destruction and creation. Western classical music that takes such inspiration is fairly rare. (One may turn to Gustav Holst, Alan Hovhaness and Lou Harrison for some fine examples.) This piece, in its contrasting delicacy and brawn sounded good enough to eat.
Stewart likes to speak to his audiences before concerts, and his enthusiasm is unequivocal. But he always reiterates material from the pre-concert lectures, the (excellent) program notes by Don Adkins and all the publicity from the Symphony’s administration. I would sue for more concise and much shorter commentary from the podium.