Santa Cruz Symphony

By Scott MacClelland

Daniel Stewart, ending his first full season as Santa Cruz Symphony music director, demurred to Cheryl Anderson’s splendid Cabrillo Symphonic Chorus in works of Mozart and Bernstein. Except for the latter’s Chichester Psalms, he also denied himself the opportunity to display his own penetrating musical insights at their most brilliant. To have done otherwise might have been at the expense of Mozart, a risky gambit for any conductor save those who posit themselves at the forefront of the most recent discoveries of 18th century performance practice.

There’s the rub. In Mozart’s unfinished Requiem mass, and through no fault of his own, Stewart does not yet enjoy the resources to catch up with the historically informed revelations currently being purveyed by the likes of John Eliot Gardiner and René Jacobs, to name just two. Moreover, such would incur a significant cost in acquiring new editions and training both musicians and chorus. In this case, he Mozart, WAused his available budget to enlist a quartet of fine solo voices from the Metropolitan Opera, Lei Xu, Renée Tatum, Mario Chang and Ryan Speedo Green. The Requiem, as heard Sunday at Watsonville’s Mello Center, owes some of its ‘organic’ recycling of earlier materials into the final sections, as well as much of the orchestration, to Franz Xaver Süssmayr. Süssmayr had worked as copyist for Mozart while he was composing his last three operas, and the great composer’s young widow and children were desperately in debt and looked to a production of the Requiem for relief.

The traditional introit and Requiem aeternam (eternal rest) open the work in mystery, followed by the Kyrie from the mass ordinary, here presented as a fugue that plunged the work back into the Baroque of Bach and Handel. (As a young student, Mozart did not receive instruction in old-fashioned counterpoint but, once discovered, he returned to it again and again with increasing power.)

The ensuing Dies Irae sequence begins with a choral juggernaut that promises the wrath of judgment in the most violent of depictions. Then a solo trombone introduces the bass solo, Tuba mirum, suggesting that the soul will face God’s wrath utterly alone—but also with astonishment as both death and nature countenance the awful moment. (In the 17th and 18th centuries, the trombone was often used symbolically to represent death and/or the supernatural. In the great 19th century Requiem settings by Berlioz and Verdi, that signal call was taken over by multiple brass bands deployed in terrifying antiphonal spectacle.) Following the bass solo, the other members of the quartet carry the section, as they do in the Recordare where the male voices alternate with the female in call and response.

Arguably the most touching section of the work is the haunting Lacrimosa, followed abruptly by the dancing Domine Jesu for chorus and quartet. Deep into Süssmayr’s summation, the Agnus Dei takes the chorus to darkness while the sound of the trumpet adds mystery just before the fugal choral finale. Indeed mystique informs this peculiar hybrid work which may explain in part its hold on latter-day audiences.

Stewart opened the program with the all-too-brief Ave verum corpus, a precious memento dating from the same final months of Mozart’s life and as touching as anything he wrote.

This was followed by Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms in an affecting performance that featured boy soprano Daniel Ostrom, perhaps 7 or 8 years old, who sang the 23rd Psalm with remarkable accuracy and consistency in the lyrical middle movement. Remarkable because of the bluesy melodic scale and Hebrew text. That spell was shattered suddenly by the chorus in “Why do the nations rage” from Psalm 2, which Bernstein then fitted in counterpoint back to the innocent “The Lord is my shepherd”–shades of the even more contrapuntal “Tonight” ensemble from West Side Story.

According to Don Adkins’ program notes, Bernstein seems almost apologetic for the “very tonal, very direct, almost babyish” qualities of the work—as if there were something wrong with that! (Adkins even quoted a somewhat defensive poem Bernstein wrote about it.) At least Lenny wasn’t deluding himself about the critical slings and arrows that targeted the piece after its introduction in New York in 1965. (I believe all those critics are now deservedly dead.)

Here, Stewart found his own main course. The orchestral score is spectacular with invention, colors and variety, not least for the large, exotic percussion battery that spread from right to left between the strings and winds. Equally exotic, the variety of modes and vivaciously syncopated rhythms. A clanging dissonance announced the first movement, sections from Psalm 108 and the entire Psalm 100 “Make a joyful noise unto the Lord.” The final movement, also entirely choral, offered the Psalm 131, as a surprising quartet of cellos echoed the loving theme, and closed with the first verse of Psalm 133 “Behold how good…for brethren to dwell together in unity.”

Now if we can only convince Stewart to dispense with his awkward improvised stage commentaries in deference to his own formidable musical abilities and out of respect for Don Adkins’ exemplary program notes and pre-concert lectures. Even Abraham Lincoln took the time to consult others before writing down and delivering his speeches.