Francesca dePasquale and Daniel Stewart
The Santa Cruz Symphony presented a magnificent concert Sunday afternoon at Mello Center for the Performing Arts in Watsonville. This was the fourth concert in the Santa Cruz Symphony’s 2012-2103 season, and it featured guest conductor Daniel Stewart, the fourth of five contenders for the Symphony’s post of Music Director that is becoming vacant through the imminent retirement of Music Director John Larry Granger. Also featured in this concert was a brilliant young 23-year-old violinist Francesca dePasquale as guest soloist on this occasion.
The Santa Cruz Symphony has assigned a theme to each of its five programs, and the theme for this concert was “Transcendence.” This turned out to be quite appropriate, because looking at the program on paper – Rossini’s “Overture to the Barber of Seville, “Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1 in G Minor, and the Second Symphony by Brahms, our first reaction might be that we have heard all these pieces so many times in concert, plus we have all heard great historically significant recordings. Wasn’t this likely to be for us a déja vue experience?
Well, it certainly didn’t turn out that way. From the very first note of the Rossini overture, we knew we were about to hear something way beyond what we were expecting. In addition to the intrinsic charm of this great work, the precision of ensemble, the accuracy of rhythmic attack, clarity of textures and the brilliant pacing grabbed our attention and gave us the impression we were hearing this work for the first time. Conductor Stewart whipped up the players to such a riveting climax the audience erupted into a storm of applause and bravos. This was not a routine performance of an overly familiar seven-minute overture, not to be regretted by latecomers, but rather a refreshingly vital performance with oodles of spontaneity and charm.
The best was yet to come. Out on stage came the lovely young violinist, Francesca dePasquale, to perform the Bruch G Minor Violin Concerto. Her biographical information in the printed program described the usual competitions and early appearances with orchestras that are found in the bios of so many young violinists. We also learned that she is a master’s degree candidate at the Juilliard School studying with Itzhak Perlman. But when she touched her bow to strings in her opening solo, we heard the sound of a mature artist fully formed at a young age and equal to any challenge. Magnificent intonation, even in harmonics and octaves, gorgeous control of dynamics and a big gutsy sound that soared at times and whispered at others completely won us over. Her lovely shaping of melodies in the slow movement was creamy smooth and utterly natural. The climax of the movement gave me goose bumps. The last movement was a knockout and earned her a prolonged standing ovation.
After intermission we heard the Brahms Symphony No. 2. This is a symphony that in the wrong hands can come across as overly serious and overloaded with ponderous detail. Conductor Stewart seemed to find exactly the best way to bring out every bit of vitality and charm (and there were some great solos from members of the orchestra). Especially effective was the coda of the Symphony’s first movement, which begins softly and slowly and builds into a subtle, restrained accelerando. Also tremendously exciting in this performance was the third movement with its infectious delights and quirky rhythms. The final movement, Allegro con spirito, brought down the house with a firestorm of applause and bravos.
It was mentioned at the beginning of the concert that Daniel Stewart has recently been appointed Assistant Conductor to James Levine at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City, and Mr. Levine fully supports Stewart in his candidacy for conductor of the Santa Cruz Symphony – in other words there would be no conflict of interest if he were to hold both posts.
It was a thrilled and happy audience that exited Mello Center, with more than one person observed to be humming one of the tunes from the three great works we had heard this day — and in transcendental performances, yet, just as the program had promised. Speaking of the program, the printed program booklet contained excellent program notes by Don Adkins that were historically enlightening and so well written that they were helpful to the audience by bringing new perspectives to each work we heard in this concert.