The Santa Cruz Symphony under the Direction of Daniel Stewart concluded its 2015-2016 season with the monumental Symphony No. 9 in D minor “Choral” Op.125 (1824) by Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) and Nyx (2011) by the Finnish composer/conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen (1958 – present). On Sunday, May 8, at the Mello Center, the sign above both ticket windows read SOLD OUT. I understand the Saturday performance at the Civic in Santa Cruz posted the same news. How and Why? Maestro “Danny” Stewart and the incredible, newly-energized Santa Cruz Symphony can take the credit! On this occasion, one can add the Cabrillo Symphonic Chorus, solidly prepared by Choral Director Cheryl Anderson.
Composer Salonen stated one of his influences was the great Polish composer Witold Lutoslawski, whom Salonen holds in high regard. An odd parallel runs between Salonen and Lutoslawski. Salonen began his musical career as a composer who has now gained considerable fame as a conductor. Just the opposite is the case with Lutoslawski, who began as a conductor, but through his fantastic compositions is now more famed as a composer.
The concert opened with Esa-Pekka Salonen’s composition Nyx, one of the most stunning works in the contemporary orchestral repertoire! Nyx is a single movement work performed without interruption. The idea behind Nyx is a crepuscular figure in Greek Mythology. Salonen observes she is an extremely nebulous character altogether. One idea states she results from a large dark mass called Chaos. Several figures and complex arrangements of matches are born including Earth, the starry heaven, the sea, and the union of Nyx and Phanes that produces Heaven and Earth. We have program music in which to a degree a composition is based on preconceived narrative — in this case Greek mythology that evokes specific ideas and atmosphere.
Maestro Salonen explains Nyx is his return to the genre of pure, large orchestral music since his previous work Helix (2005). Nyx employs the idea of concertante in which solo clarinet (Karen Sremac) and horn (Paul Avril) were on prominent display within the large orchestral sound fabric. There is a sense of late Romantic reflection in several moments, perhaps a part of his DNA reflecting his extraordinary orchestral technical knowledge having directed many of the world’s most renown orchestras.
Stewart was masterful in maintaining excellent balance between the complex counterpoint of themes and ideas. The regular flickering and kaleidoscopic change of orchestral sound textures must have been on Salonen’s in relation to the elusive subject matter. Interwoven were many delicate moments that conjured chiaroscuro textures that avoided clear-cut pure black and white orchestral sound. The dramatic, dynamic development element was most impressive. Atmospheric whispers grew into explosions and the intimate solo clarinet line functioned as a magnet attracting a tutti of string pizzicati, brass, winds then blending into massive orchestral colors. Most impressive, both Nyx and Beethoven’s 9th Symphony were conducted from memory, without a score! Nyx is a work that should be performed more often as a primary example of wonderful artistic contemporary orchestral composition.
Stewart pointed out just prior to the Beethoven 9th that it was 192 years ago today (May, 8th) that the premiere took place, the coordination was fitting and appropriate! After a minute tentative moment, the orchestra rendered total justice to this monumental work. Under Stewart’s keen ear, orchestral balance, tonality, dynamics were simply uplifting. The spirited second movement was bright, crisp and the important timpani punctuations by Don Baker were spot on. The well-timed pauses at phrase endings were most effective and allowed us to digest the important bassoon lines that Douglas Brown performed so impressively throughout this movement.
The four soloists “on loan” from the Metropolitan Opera Company were Shenyang, Bass-baritone; Kang Wang, tenor, Avery Amereau, mezzo-soprano and Michelle Bradly, soprano. In the fourth movement, Beethoven applied the Aristotelian concept of recapitulating the themes of the previous three movements, thus unifying the entire work and preparing it for the unique vocal entries to follow. Percussionist Kris Lou was also spot on with his important part of precisely timed bass drum entries, crucial in setting the pace of following entries. The famous “Freude, schöner Götterfunken, Tochter aus Elysium” rang out strongly and brightly by bass-baritone Shenyang. In turn, the powerful chorus entered with “Deine Zauber binden wieder” and the movement was in full gear. Most impressive was the preparation of the chorus by Cheryl Anderson and the obvious enthusiasm of the chorus. They came to sing and sing they did! Both tenor and mezzo-soprano performed in excellent voice, and soprano Michelle Bradley was simply superb! This writer cannot recall the Cabrillo Chorus so well prepared and eager to do justice to this wonderful work.
Flowers of appreciation to soloists were in order and in true charismatic appreciation, Maestro Stewart must have congratulated practically each member personally! A spectacular finish to the 58th Symphony’s season, BRAVO!