Santa Cruz Symphony — Third Concert of its Season at Mello Center

Santa Cruz Sym 1-17-13_edited-1

Conductor Diane Wittry & pianist Yoonie Han

In Watsonville’s Henry J. Mello Center for the Performing Arts on Sunday afternoon the Santa Cruz Symphony presented the third concert of its 2012-2013 season. This was an opportunity for us to hear the third candidate in the Symphony’s quest for a new Music Director, Diane Wittry, plus guest piano soloist, Yoonie Han. The first half of the concert went by very quickly. After Ms. Wittry led the orchestra in a spirited four-minute performance of Mozart’s Overture to “The Marriage of Figaro,” we heard the afternoon’s soloist, Yoonie Han in a performance of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in C Minor.

There is no question that Ms. Han is a brilliant pianist, but as fine a pianist as she is, her powerful personality dominated to the extent that she had difficulty reining in her playing. Her tempos were so fast and her rushing in fast passages so rampant, that the magic of Beethoven’s style was often overpowered and obscured. In softer slower passages, such as in the first movement’s development section and in the slow movement’s beautiful cantabile passages, her playing was absolutely gorgeous. Yet, in climatic moments like the first movement’s cadenza, her playing approached the ferocity of a Tchaikovsky concerto. Nevertheless, at the concerto’s conclusion the audience roared its approval and gave her a prolonged standing ovation. She played one encore, the Liszt/Paganini Etude “La Campanella,” and this was a fabulous, world-class performance.

It was difficult to make an assessment of Ms. Wittry’s abilities as a conductor during the first half of the concert since Mozart’s Overture to “The Marriage of Figaro” was over so quickly, and Ms. Han’s playing in the Beethoven’s Concerto caused frequent ensemble problems. However, after intermission we had an opportunity to hear what Ms. Wittry really can do with an orchestra as she led the musicians through Aaron Copland’s “Appalachian Spring” and a new work by Miguel Del Aguila, “Conga.”

It was a thrilling experience hearing these two works in close proximity, because under Ms. Wittry’s direction the Santa Cruz Symphony sounded like two entirely different orchestras. In Copland’s “Appalachian Spring” she managed a tight command of the orchestra so that as various instrumental groups played against each other, there was a lovely control enabling the audience to hear precisely what the composer intended. We always knew which instruments were dominant and which were secondary or accompanying. And then there was the matter of dynamics. There were times that the orchestra gave us full rich powerful sound in its various sections, and then there were times that we heard the most amazing variety of soft sounds and velvety pianissimos – the kind of control that distinguishes a fine orchestra from a mediocre one. This is not something that happens by itself. It is carefully planned and practiced in rehearsals, and it was impressive.

I had no idea what we were going to hear in the last work on the program, “Conga,” by Miguel del Aguila. We had heard earlier in the program that the composer was present and would talk to the audience about the composition. So, I had a vision in my mind of someone natty, like Xavier Cugat, strolling out on stage cuddling a Chihuahua telling us how this piece would be full of different styles like rhumba, samba, mambo, etc. Well, in reality the composer was very different from Cugat, and he was charming and articulate. He told us that he composed this work in a dream (an endless line of dead people dancing through the fires of hell), and that when he set it down on paper it grew into something even more substantial than his original intention.

This piece was a knockout and its performance ran the gamut from fabulous use of percussion instruments (including a “wind machine”), devilishly difficult cross rhythms and a clever exploitation of the instruments of the orchestra – everybody had something exciting to play. This piece really grabbed you by the throat and commanded your attention for twelve minutes. By the time we reached the frenzied climax of the piece, we were all ready to spring to our feet and yell, “Bravo.” I developed a great admiration for how Ms. Wittry held this piece together, for there was so much going on, it required a magician to hold it all together.

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