Director Maestro Danny Stewart opened the Symphony’s 59th Season to a SOLD OUT, enthusiastic audience at the Mello Center for the Performing Arts on Sunday, October 1. He began by elaborating on specific, interesting events regarding the works to be performed, the composers and the history that surrounded them.The concert “VOX POPULI” (Voice of the People) offered four interesting works opening with the most timely, Slava! A Political Overture for orchestra (1977), by Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990); Egmont Overture (1787) by Ludwig van Beethoven (1777-1827); Celestial Dance (1995) by Henry Mallicone and the Symphony No. 5 (1937) by Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975).
The prominent Soviet cellist and conductor Mstislav Rostropovich asked his close friend Leonard Bernstein to help initiate his inaugural concert as Music Director of the National Symphony Orchestra. “Slava” as Rostropovich was called by his friends also asked Bernstein to compose a rousing work for the opening festivities. In Russian, “slava” translates into “glory” and is used as a nickname for those who name has “slava” as part of their name: Miroslav, Dragoslav, Miroslave, etc. The World Premiere took place on October 11, 1977 at the Kennedy Center with Rostropovich on the podium.
The rousing, razzmatazz opening is one of many surprise moments built into the score and performed with “special” interest and insight given the state of current political affairs in our fair land. A prerecorded tape of political speeches offered comic relief midway through the work featuring the voices of Bernstein, Michael Wagner, Adolf Green and Patrick O’ Neal was played over an orchestral vamp midway through the work. Cheering crowds are also heard as part of the tape. Although not composed in the score, it is common practice for the conductor to perform the work with “Slava” shouted out after the woodblock solo is sounded near the end of the work. “Unusual” instruments were employed including the electric guitar and sopranino saxophone. Maestro Stewart captured Bernstein’s erudite personality and allowed his high energy to shine through the many creative, fun to experience musical moments of delightful vaudeville character, and syncopated rhythms to glow in this performance.
Beethoven’s Egmont Overture, designated Sostenuto, ma non troppo – Allegro, is set in the dark and somber key of F Minor, a key that Beethoven did not often use. The stark unison followed by a series of full chords introduced the first theme in the woodwinds in which the oboe, clarinet and bassoon performed with great musical skill. Orchestral balance and wonderful counterpoint between the high and low strings was impressive. Following the soft woodwind choral Stewart built the orchestral sound to a staggering climax with the trumpets and timpani and a moment of glory for the piccolo.
As stated in the program, this performance of Henry Mollicone’s Celestial Dance is a celebration of his 70th birthday. Celestial Dance was first performed in 1995, under the baton of JoAnn Falletta, a former Santa Cruz Symphony conductor. The work began with a compelling balance between the strings, brass and percussion that as the work developed were all nicely coordinated with gentle, repetitive, ascending harp figures. The orchestral attacks, especially in the impressive melodic string writing were clean and crisp. The overall phrasing was finely polished and thoroughly unified with evident care given to proportion and textural color. The slow, accelerated dynamic intensity Mollicone designed into the last moments of the work were perfectly realized and as pointed out in the program notes, in a musical sense, sang of the ongoing miracle of creation and change. The audience showed its appreciation with a standing ovation.
The Shostakovich Symphony No. 5 was composed during the apex of the Stalinist purges of 1937. In many respects, this symphony brings to mind the dark war awareness that one finds in Prokofiev’s Piano Sonata No.7. After the premiere of his Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District 5, a work considered too complex to be properly Communist, Shostakovich’s life was on the razor’s edge! His mentor was shot, family members disappeared and he was threatened. The duality between his fate to be a creative talent living in the Soviet Union and to live in one of history’s most repressive regimes created a dilemma of enormous proportions. Thus, Shostakovich called his Symphony No. 5 “A response to my critics.” From the opening somber struggle between cellos and double basses that passes to the brass Shostakovich, exposed the political demons and unrest of that time. The effective piano and brass entry that followed and the violin line that played over the cellos slowly repeated rhythmic figure were most effective to solidify the mood. The repeated trumpet line heard as the great Red Army marching led into a settled, tranquil moment resting on a rhythmic pattern in the cellos and basses. The second movement opened in the lower strings again, but offered melodic relief with a well performed violin solo. Another moment in the form of a quasi bizarre fantasy march with pizzicati, bassoons and brass was well realized. The final movement presented a gradual acceleration of forces that have been fermenting since the onset. Maestro Stewart created a sense of the hysteria of that time. The ascending harp, flute, violin and oboe lines resolved into yet another somber, almost nightmarish texture before the final relentless “D”. The performance was brilliant as Maestro Stewart congratulated practically each and every member of the orchestra against a thunderous standing ovation in appreciation of this monumental performance.