Santa Cruz Symphony, Oct 5

By Scott MacClelland

Listening to Mozart’s Symphony No. 41, the so-called “Jupiter,” at Watsonville’s Mello Center last Sunday, I found myself reminded of Adam Gopnik’s axiom, “Of all the amazing things the mind does, the most amazing may be that it can take sound and turn it into music, and then take music and turn it into meaning.”

But credit goes as much to Daniel Stewart whose vision of the piece was not short of revelatory. At 42 minutes, the longest performance I’ve ever heard, Stewart exceeded the recent ‘performance practice’ revival by at least five minutes. (Several generations ago, some notables, like Thomas Beecham and Arturo Toscanini, played it in less than half an hour.) This was not an accident. Stewart’s idea confirmed the talent and imagination that won him the post after the 2012 audition season. It penetrated the composer’s expressive design so often missing from the recent spate of facile—even flippant—attempts to somehow recapture ‘period’ performance practices.

To achieve this meant that Stewart took all the repeats possible, notably in the sonata-form first and last movements. One standout of Stewart’s conducting style is the sharp contrast of articulation between rhythmically charged passages and adjacent lyrical ones. Not only does he have a clear idea in mind but he communicates it equally well. Everything in this performance made sense, though he lingered a bit long in the romantic slow movement which lulled the reading down. But the finale, that sui generis miracle of counterpoint, was nothing short of breathtaking, a riotous play of five different themes all somehow fitted into a classical sonata. There is nothing else like it in all music and both the audience and the orchestra heaped praise on Danny Stewart. If George Cleve were the conductor, he would have held up the score to receive the accolade, but Stewart performed the piece from memory.

The afternoon concert began with Leonard Bernstein’s sparkling Candide overture, a barrel of musical laughs in just five minutes with the orchestra sounding fabulous. (The prototype for it is Barber’s School for Scandal overture, which in turn took its form from British composers Elgar, Holst and Vaughan Williams.)

But the other big event of the day was Thomas Adès’ In Seven Days, a variations for piano and orchestra, the latter augmented by extra percussion (bells, gong, crash cymbals, drums.) The theme, a descending melody, was greatly arpeggiated all over both solo and orchestra, a hugely busy texture with only spare moments of repose, as befits an instrumental recitation of the Old Testament creation myth. (For the Santa Cruz Civic performance the night before the graphics by Tal Rosner, which provided a roadmap to the piece, were projected on six screens.) A reading of Don Adkins’ program notes was essential to sort through the sequence of events.

The half-hour piece began with Chaos, on the strings, a kind of counterpoint that was more about mood than form. As it progressed, winds and brass joined in and, with percussion, rose to a climax that signaled Light and the first entrance of the piano. Dark came next, with growling low brass. The piano, which the composer divided into its different registers on several occasions, then played frantic gestures at the high end and grumbled in the bass. Only as time progressed did its music move toward the middle. The elements represented in music were Separation of the Waters into Sea and Sky, Land—Grass—Trees, Stars—Sun—Moon, Fugue: Creatures of the Sea, Fugue: Creatures of the Land and, lastly, Contemplation. There were passages for the orchestral sections alone and together (including a big climax about two thirhodges__c__eric_richmondds of the way along) and brief episodes for the piano alone. While the music paid little attention to elements of major and minor keys, it spoke mainly with a tonal flavor that took the edge off its complex textures and challenging rhetoric. Adès has a distinctive voice that has served his copious output well. (The Cabrillo Festival played his Asyla a few seasons ago.)

Pianist Nicolas Hodges, right (photo by Eric Richmond), who gave the work its premiere in Britain and California, was on hand to read the fiendish solo part, and made it look impossibly easy. Stewart, who has worked closely with the composer, took clear charge of the orchestral score. After all the gyrations of Creation, and a return of the Chaos music, the piece came to a tranquil end on ‘the seventh day’ of rest, punctuated with an amusing upward hook on the strings.

The concert was recorded for broadcast by KUSP 88.9 FM on October 31, 8pm.