Santa Cruz Symphony — Dance Prisms

Daniel Stewart, Music Director & Conductor

On Sunday, March 23 at the Mello Center for the Performing Arts the Santa Cruz Symphony under the new Music Director Daniel Stewart presented a delightful afternoon of beautifully performed music. The words written on the front page of the program, “The Future is Now” are now lit in bright lights and deservedly so! The program consisted of Béla Bartók’s Rumanian Folk Dances, SZ, 68, BB 76 (1917); Johann Sebastian Bach’s Orchestral Suite No. 2 in B minor, BMV 1067 (1739); Charles Ives’ The Unanswered Question” (1906) and Igor Stravinsky’s Pulcinella Suite (1922, rev. 1947). Prior to the start of the concert Director Stewart revealed the programs for the 2014-2015 season, which  promise to be especially exciting since we will be hearing some young Metropolitan Opera talents in addition to instrumental soloists.

Bartók’s Dances consists of six dances, which according to the composer should not exceed four minutes to perform. Bartók seldom employed key signatures, although, some editions today contain them. It is interesting to note that the principle instruments used in this folk music are the fiddle (violin), clarinet, shepherd’s flute and cimbalom. All of these are instruments typically found in that part of Eastern Europe where the predominant languages are Slovak, Hungarian and Rumanian, which although radically different in sound, share some commonality of accent placement, a characteristic reflected in Bartok’s compositions. Maestro Stewart understood and executed Bartók’s Dances with considerable authenticity and thus the orchestra achieved some impressive results. The articulated bowed/pizzicato accented, drone-like effect in the strings in several of the dances served as the backdrop against which solos by clarinet, flute/piccolo and violin were performed most convincingly. Not surprisingly, this work was well received by the audience.

Bach’s Orchestral Suite No. 2 immediately reflected an emotional solemnity that was characteristic throughout the six dances. Contrasting imitative Baroque textures were blended in a way that created a satisfying musical fabric. Especially superb were the several solos artistically performed by principal flautist Laurie Camphouse.

The revolutionary “Unanswered Question” by Charles Ives is his most famous composition, what he called a “cosmic drama.” The work can be thought of as a triple layered collage scored for three groups: an on-stage woodwind quartet, an-off stage string ensemble that performs a dynamically quiet, hauntingly, penetrating choral that Ives said represented “The Silence of the Druids,” plus a solo trumpet situated in the balcony of  Mello Center. At calculated intervals, Maestro Stewart cued the trumpet solo in the balcony containing an enigmatic phrase expressing “the perennial question of existence.” This question & answer idea, was begun by the trumpet, answered by the woodwinds (each time somewhat more agitated and louder) until the woodwinds simply stopped as the trumpet played the question one last time. Judging by the response of the audience, the Ives’ work was a most welcomed success into new, unchartered musical territory.

The orchestra players paid keen attention to every nuance Stewart cued in realizing the colorful orchestration Stravinsky employed in his Pulcinella Suite. The work proceeded with delicate dynamic balance, flawless phrasing and virtuosity by the wind, brass and string players throughout the entire piece.

The long-awaited interesting and intelligent programming that the audience appreciated so much has finally arrived this season with much more to come in following years. Bravo Maestro Stewart and Santa Cruz County Symphony!

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