The culmination of the Monterey Symphony’s concert at Sunset Center on Sunday afternoon, April 23rd, was a convincing performance of Mahler’s 4th Symphony in which they sounded like a big-city orchestra. This was a remarkable achievement by conductor Max Bragado-Darman, mellifluous soprano Cyndia Sieden, and the players, after only a couple of days of rehearsal and two previous performances. Kudos to the Monterey Symphony team who recently held auditions yielding twelve new musicians to the orchestra: Max Bragado Darman, the orchestra audition committee, the staff, and personnel manager Drew Ford. Special kudos also to acting principal horn Alex Camphouse, principal clarinet Julia Sarah Bonomo, and acting principal bassoon Nikolasa Kuster, who all made distinguished contributions. And of course, this being Mahler, we heard a large complement of orchestral instruments, including sleigh bells, piccolo and E flat clarinet, English horn, bass clarinet, contra-bassoon, tuba, harp, and bass drum. The orchestral players all rose to the occasion – none more so than the strings, who made uniformly beautiful and expressive sounds throughout — a quality that can be much harder to achieve in a less than full-time orchestra than brilliance in the more soloistic winds and brass. That said, the horn section also earned high honors, taking their cue from the confident sonority of the acting principal.
The concert had begun with the fifth movement of the Brahms Requiem, (Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit), with Ms. Sieden and the orchestra joined by local favorites I Cantori di Carmel, with their chorus master, Sal Ferrantelli, taking charge as guest conductor. Cyndia Sieden gave a finely poised account of the solo line, and the chorus interleaved their commentary with hushed sincerity, and excellent evenness of timbre (notably so in the tenor section).
This addition to the program was supported by Elizabeth Sosic in memory of her late husband Zvonimir, and Board President Lee Rosen linked the names of several other deceased friends of the orchestra to the memorial performance. Also in the first half of the program, Ms. Sieden sang two of Desdemona’s arias from Act IV of Verdi’s Otello, the Willow Song, and Ave Maria, with gloomy introspection and sensitive interaction with the orchestra, but nothing prepared us for the new heights the performers would reach in the Mahler symphony.
Right from the tinkling bells of the start, the audience could settle down, without making any allowances, to enjoy an hour of relatively happy Mahler, very melodious and dance-like, often folksy. This composer is of the school that believes that if a tune is worth hearing once, it is worth hearing several times (including reappearing in later movements, and in other works), so we soon came to feel we were inhabiting his world. Bragado-Darman seemed completely at home in leading the players through the long first and third movements, balancing structure and momentum. The second movement is the devilish scherzo, with solo violin tuned a whole tone sharp, and with the trio and its rhythmical clarinet trills so good that it has to be heard twice. Finally, in the fourth movement, the soprano joins the orchestra, and here we could appreciate especially Cyndia Sieden’s pure upper register, both in smooth legato, and in spikier rhythmical effects. The restful close of this pastoral work is one of the most satisfying in the repertoire, and was perfectly done.