Santa Cruz Symphony — Music of the Spheres

Concert Master Nigel Armstrong

 The Santa Cruz Symphony under the direction of Maestro Danny Stewart opened its 60th season with its new orchestral members included in a most impressive performance of Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons” (ca. 1725) and Gustav Holst’s “The Planets” (1916). To sum up this concert in one word would be quite impossible, however, I believe “brilliant” would lead one in the correct direction! The addition of new musicians has already paid huge dividends in raising the performance bar and only furthers the fact the orchestra’s reputation under Stewart has spread like wildfire.

Vivaldi’s work consists of Spring (La Primavera), Summer (L’Estate), Autumn (L’Autumno) and Winter (L’Inverno). Vivaldi, affectionately called “The Red Priest of Venice,” was a most highly accomplished composer. Let us bear in mind who his contemporaries were: J.S. Bach (1685-1750), Rameau (1683-1764), Handel (1685-1759) and Scarlatti (1685-1757) four of the most significant composers in Baroque history. As in the case of Bach, Vivaldi’s works virtually disappeared for some 150 years.

As soloist, Concertmaster Nigel Armstrong performed superbly in the ensemble’s noticeably diminished size of 20-22 standing string players plus harpsichord. Armstrong performed with a flawless sense of the music’s ebb and flow and created exquisitely tapered phrasing that merged into the texture with taste and balance.

“The Four Seasons” is filled with ultra delicate sound textures, and the intimate, imitative exchanges between Armstrong, newly acquired Principle Cellist Johan Kim and Associate Concertmaster Lori Jensen were impressive.

The timed pauses in the second section, “Summer,” gave an added dimension of expansion to the overall texture. The battuto, percussive effect performed by the strings in “Autumn” blended nicely with the text projected behind and above the orchestra that read “Full of the liquor of Bacchus,” and appropriately, the message rang clear. Also the appropriate gentle, soothing thinning string texture that accompanied “They finish their merry making with a sleep” was performed most delicately. The rhythmic build up to the Concert Master’s solo in “Winter” was performed with poise and technical perfection exemplifying Vivaldi’s compositional trademark. After “The Seasons” ended, the audience was treated to a highly virtuoso encore by Nigel Armstrong with a short part from “Something I’ve been working on,” by George Harrison’s (of Beatles fame) “Here Comes The Sun.” An impressive show of virtuosity and imagination!

During Friday evening’s open rehearsal, Mr. Stewart paid meticulous attention to detail, in particular to dynamics and the precise articulation of prominent instruments in their respective orchestral families. The result was a most compelling performance complete with hidden choir behind the orchestra! Cheryl Anderson prepared the Women of the Cabrillo Symphonic Chorus for the performance and they were excellent.

At least in part, Holst conceived the idea of “The Planets” as a result in his interest in astrology, but he had been planning to compose a large-scale orchestral work for some time, and large it turned out to be. This writer counted 16 brass, 6 percussionists, 7 timpani 2 harps and a full compliment of strings, all of which inundated the stage at the Mello Center on 10/7.

Holst began composing “The Planets” in 1914 and it appears that Schoenberg’s Fünf Orchesterstücke and perhaps Debussy’s La Mer may have influenced him. The compositional order of The Planets are MARS the Bringer of War, VENUS the Bringer of Peace, Mercury the Winged Messenger, JUPITER the Bringer of Jollity, SATURN the Bringer of Old Age, URANUS the Magician and NEPTUNE the Mystic.

Each planet is represented with a distinct character. The Historian and Music Critique Dickenson observed that “no planet borrows color from another” to emphasize the point.

In Mars, the Bringer of War, the persistent asymmetrical rhythmic cell of five beats on timpani and snare drums, coupled with trumpet calls that developed into a semi dissonant texture emphasized the intention.

In Venus, the Bringer of Peace, Holst introduced music from “A Vigil to Pentecost,” a somewhat abandoned work perhaps to set a mood of peaceful resignation. Boticelli’s the Birth of Venus was projected as a symbol of what tranquility means. Mercury was dominated by flighty harp passages, uneven metric scheme and rapid theme changes to signify the speedy flight of the winged messenger. Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity, perhaps the most obvious work of the seven glowed with superb horn and timpani contributions.

In Saturn, Holst relied on a previously composed vocal work, “Dirge and Hymeneal,” with repeated chords that perhaps served as the inevitable approach of old age. The English horns, oboe, tubas and double basses participated in a relentless, effective diminuendo.

In Uranus, the Magician, the bassoons introduced a brilliant depiction from The Sorcerer’s Apprentice in which the Magician “disappears in a whiff of smoke” as Maestro Stewart diminished the movement in impressive fashion from the designated dynamic mark of fff to ppp in just a few bars. Here, the tubas, timpani and harps contributed greatly to creating the appropriate magical mood.

The final movement Neptune, the Mystic, concluded with a wordless female chorus, hidden behind the orchestra, gradually in diminuendo-decrescendo Neptune drifting away in some imaginary eternal silence creating the sense of unresolved timelessness.

Bravo Maestro and orchestra for a spectacular opening concert!


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