Santa Cruz Symphony, October 6, 2013

Daniel Stewart scores big in Santa Cruz

By Scott MacClelland

The long-anticipated launch of Daniel Stewart’s debut as Santa Cruz Symphony music director scored big successes in Santa Cruz and Watsonville on the weekend. Sunday afternoon from the Mello Center stage Stewart spoke with eloquence and gratitude for this, his first such engagement. At the same time he brings a sea-change to the orchestra by establishing that it is their responsibility, individually and collective, to make the music. His job, he informed them, is “facilitator.” This is very biopic-stewartdifferent from John Larry Granger who was often quite controlling, “holding our hands” as one musician told me.The difference showed, though ‘facilitator’ is hardly the word I would use to describe Danny’s (his preferred nickname) work on the podium. Overly physical in his body language at this stage, he nevertheless projected a clear image of what he wanted. Though the overture to Die Fledermaus may be a pops concert potboiler, this time is got a fully energized and vivid celebration, its contrasting sections complementing one another with bold gestures and phrasing. Right away, a fresh breeze fluttered through the orchestra and into the hall.

For the Mozart piano concerto No. 25 in C—conducted from memory like all three works in this show—disclosed some ensemble moments out of phase. Stewart has rearranged the seating, with the two violin sections now opposite across the proscenium, with the cellos and violas in between, the double basses behind the first violins and percussion behind the seconds. Like every other new thing here, this will undoubtedly take some getting used to as well. There were also some small ambivalences in the coordination between the conductor and the soloist, Jeffrey Kahane. Yet, the concerto, symphonic in scope and complexity, was welcome for its rarity on the concert stage. Further, its unusually difficult piano part is often used concertante, more a part of the orchestral fabric than a real contrasting solo. Nevertheless the performance had no difficulty in winning over the audience.

For the second half, Stewart gave Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony a knockout reading. Among the (literally) few things a conductor actually can do in performance is draw a “line”—think of a phrase expanded to cover an entire section of piece. This requires stepping back from the score far enough to see and understand the big picture, something many conductors are not skilled at. It also takes imagination. Here there was plenty of line, as for example in the sections of the first movement where the woodwinds, starting with a bassoon solo (thank you Jane Orzel), begin a drawn-out quieter ‘interlude.’ And though Stewart’s control of line ran through the entire performance, it stood out, again, in the ‘canzona’ second movement. Approaching the end of the pizzicato third, when the winds team up with the strings, excitement grew palpably on stage and in the house. The explosive finale just about set the place on fire and, but for some weaknesses in the horns, the orchestra sounded fabulous.

The concert will be broadcast on KUSP 89.9 on November 8, 8pm.     

Vadym Kholodenko photo by Ellen Appel-Mike Moreland/The Cliburn; Daniel Stewart photo courtesy of Anastasia Chernyavsky