On Sunday, November 17, the Santa Cruz County Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Maestro Daniel Stewart took the stage at the Mello Center for the Performing Arts and performed Ma Mère L’oye (1908, 1911) by Maurice Ravel (1875-1937), the Cello Concerto No. 1 in E-Flat Major, Op. 107 (1959) by Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) with Austin Huntington soloist and Beethoven’s (1770-1827) monumental Symphony No. 5 in C minor (1808). Perhaps the most impressive aspects of this afternoon’s concert were the crystal clear textures, the impressive dynamic control and the spirited performance evident in all three works.
I had the pleasure of attending a rehearsal and witnessing the talented, newly appointed Music Director and the uplifted, spirited orchestra at work. A word of professional praise is well deserved for the marvelous orchestra whose musical abilities under the keen ear and meticulous musical insight of Maestro Stewart have become simply awesome! The rehearsal ended with the Maestro complimenting the orchestra with “Thank you for your hard work and concentration.”
That Ravel effectively used poetry as an inspiration in his artistic output can be observed in one of his most challenging works Gaspard de La nuit, a suite for solo piano based on three poems by Aloysius Bertrand. The work we were hearing on the program today, Ma mère l’oye was originally composed for one piano, four hands, and dedicated to Jean, the 7 year old son and Mimi, the 6 year old daughter of his friends, the Godebskis. The sections “Sleeping Beauty” and “Little Tom Thumb” were based on the tales of Charles Perrault, while “Empress of the Pagodas” was inspired by a tale, “The Green Serpent,” by Perrault’s “rival” Madame d’Aulnoy.
Ravel is often praised as a precise, master orchestrator, and Daniel Stewart brought out the best in Ravel’s musical inventiveness throughout the five-section work. The delicate opening of flute against a pizzicato backdrop by the strings established a charmingly calculated and tranquil mood that ran like a golden thread throughout the work. Solos performed by Susan Vollmer, Carmen Lemoine,, Karen Sremac, Wendy Tamis, Jane Orzel and Kristina Anderson were beautifully performed during the Ravel (and during the remaining works on the program), and Maestro Stewart acknowledged their impressive artistry.
Cellist Austin Huntington
Dimitri Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No. 1 in E-flat major, Opus 107, is considered perhaps the most popular 20th Century cello concerto. Shostakovich wrote the work for his friend Mstislav Rostropovich, and after hearing this work I am completely amazed to read that he committed it to memory in four days and gave the premiere on October 4, 1959! Soloist Austin Huntington gave a brilliant, virtuoso performance! Shostakovich employed a four-note theme that is modified, reshaped and varied throughout the first movement. Given the era in which this piece was written, the precision of the “Soviet” machine-like mindset leaves an indelible mark on the work. This first theme is set beside an even simpler one performed by the woodwinds, which reappears in leitmotif fashion throughout the work. Shostakovich scored the second, third and fourth movements to be played continuously. Huntington’s technical skill performing artificial harmonics and flawless scale passages were truly impressive. Overall orchestral dynamic balance, solo passages, perfect simultaneous entries and attention to musical detail were present from the first to last note in this performance.
Despite the popularity of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5, the work sounded fresh, crisp and revitalized. After the exciting, well executed first movement, an over enthusiastic patron gave out a very loud yell of approval at which point Maestro Stewart turned to the audience with a huge smile and said gracefully “Thank you”, turned and continued. Under the direction of Maestro Stewart’s broad, clear gestures cueing in important entries from memory, the orchestra performed with delicate precision and superb balance between orchestral families of instruments. In the intense excitement of the close of the final movement the baton flew harmlessly out of the hand of Stewart. The concert ended and the standing packed-house demanded no less than four appropriate curtain calls!