By Scott MacClelland
UNBALANCED may not be the word Daniel Stewart could have hoped for in his Santa Cruz Symphony concert Sunday in Watsonville, but at least it’s accurate. JS Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 5, a decidedly odd choice for an ensemble not known for Baroque specialists, was presented in an inflated arrangement that included four cellos and two double-basses. The piece was composed—specifically for violin, flute and harpsichord, plus violin, cello and violone, the bass instrument of the violin family; just six performers. This is players’ music that doesn’t need or want a conductor and was never intended for a concert hall. (For most of the reading at the Mello the harpsichord was inaudible.) But Stewart insisted on leading from the podium, with no evident consequence of his impact on the music.
He could have made two important choices: assign concertmaster Christina Anderson to take charge—as Bach likely did—and stick to the composer’s original scoring. As a result, we got a distorted version of the piece. Then when the harpsichord finally got its long and frankly laughable solo in the first movement, keyboard player Jonathan Salzedo made a bizarrely idiosyncratic circus of it. His phrasing imparted no rhythmic sense but, of course, in that moment he was the only one playing and plainly indulged himself. Fortunately Anderson and flutist Laurie Camphouse made the best impression, cutting through the bass-heavy orchestra and soaring over the feeble keyboard instrument.
The Bach was followed by a peculiar arrangement by Arnold Schoenberg of Johann Strauss’s Roses from the South concert waltz. During a brief Viennese craze for severely reduced versions of big works, both orchestral and chamber originals, Schoenberg chose only piano, harmonium and string quartet. But in this case, the two keyboard instruments were forced to hold their own against a much bigger string orchestra. They did so admirably but suffered from a disadvantage of balance. Moreover, in the absence of winds or brass, the result actually gave the piece a strangely hollow sonic character. Would only that Stewart had chosen the orchestral version!
For the second half, all-around musician HK Gruber (see above) made his way to the mythical—to the Viennese anyway—land of Santa Cruz to sing, grunt, growl and shout the strange fairytale verses by HC Artmann which Gruber set for orchestra in a 35-minute piece called Frankenstein!! (Some Cabrillo Festival folk might have heard it several years ago in Santa Cruz, but with a different chansonnier.) Now, maybe the word unhinged might enter the conversation.
Gruber calls the piece a “pan-demonium” and underscores the point by adding the following toy instruments to the orchestra: bird warbler, plastic hose pipe (14 of them wielded by orchestra musicians), kazoo, soprano melodica, motor horn, musical tin can, paper bags (blown and popped by one of the percussionists), ratchet, siren, Swanee whistle and toy piano. Gruber played several and consigned more to orchestra members. Artmann’s verses are well-described as political nursery rhymes of a dark and menacing character. Those referenced in them include Miss Dracula, Goldfinger and Bond (in which Gruber gave the lifted long finger to the audience), John Wayne, Monster, Monsterlet, Frankenstein (as a dancer), Rat and Crusoe, Mr Superman and Lois Lane (in bed together), The Green-Haired Man, Batman and Robin (in bed together), Monsters in the Park, another go at Frankenstein (with a long trombone solo) and Grete Müller. For the brief Litany verse (“baby vampire’s biting me”) the orchestra stood and joined the chant. Gruber’s voice was amplified and the house lights were lifted so no one could complain that they didn’t understand the words. As a whole, the piece is hilarious and disturbing, but certainly entertaining. The orchestration is riotous, and stylistically all over the map as any worthy parody should be keen to do. Gruber has composed a great deal of music and presently is composer/conductor of the BBC Philharmonic.
Before the concert began, Stewart took several minutes to describe the 2016-17 season. Highlights will include pianist Yuja Wang playing two concertos (Salonen and Brahms) on the same program, a concert version of Rossini’s Barber of Seville, Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony, the Verdi Requiem and composer Henry Mollicone’s Celestial Dance.