The fortunate audience at the Sunday, November 19, concert at Mello Center witnessed a performance that will be etched in the back of their craniums forever. The highly anticipated Beethoven Symphony No. 7 in A Major Op. 92 (1812) under the direction of Santa Cruz Symphony Music Director Danny Stewart raised the bar for this work by what appeared to be an insurmountable measure. The orchestra performed brilliantly!
The opening work amazed many, including this reviewer. The Chairman Dances: Foxtrot for Orchestra (1885) by John Adams (1947), composed in his “Post- Minimalistic” style caught many completely off guard. The highly repetitious sections of this work were not in the view of many critics “redundant to the point of boring,” but well thought out, interesting and musical enjoyable as a composition. Winds and strings, at times in moto perpetuo, developed into the fabric that one understands as minimalism. However, maestro Stewart cued in the entrances with a precision that held together the digital like repetitions that little by little took on interesting shape, form and yes, a foxtrot! The sudden pauses and tempo changes were well placed and performed. Before taking flight again to places unknown, interesting rhythmic shifts and entries developed into an interesting work, worthy of another hearing.
Leonard Bernstein’s (1918-1990) famous symphonic suite from the Broadway Musical West Side Story: Symphonic Dances (1961), with its addictive song “Maria” and take on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliette featured excellent brass and percussion effects, including finger snapping and a cop’s whistle, all in perfect timing. Impressive Latin rhythmic punctuations, superb drumming and three stand-up trumpeters towards the finale were executed with spot on perfection!
The Beethoven Symphony No. 7 can be best described in one word: Glorious! Several points of interest in this performance took us to an incredible height. The meticulous attention to dynamics and the precise rhythmic structure of the first movement focused on the bouncy, dactyl rhythmic organization (strong, weak, weak) was musically effective. In the upward scale passages Maestro Stewart emphasized the importance for the dynamic level to increase with each note ever so slightly as it ascended. This worked to intensify the musical line to an impressive degree. In all four movements, special kudos must be given to the double basses, flutes, oboes, clarinets and timpani/percussion, all of which performed to an amazing musical level!
The horns and double basses opened the second movement in the parallel key of A minor, with haunting rhythmic and melodic lines picked up by the cellos and violas. The somber, lush orchestration this time emphasized a variation of the anapest rhythmic organization of weak, weak strong that carried throughout this highly emotional movement, with the tonality returning to A major mid way through. The string sections were almost organ like in quality, followed by a radiant moment in the winds and a brief fuguette based on the main motif. It ended just as it began — as simple and expressive as a perfect scene from a Puccini opera.
The beautiful singing quality of the horns and trumpets emphasized the ebb and flow of the iambic (weak, strong) rhythmic organization of the third movement and added color to the texture. Stewart’s conducting included a mixture of sweeping and detailed moments that created pin sharp textures. The balance between orchestral song-like quality and rhythm was electrifying.
In the final movement, Beethoven unleashed fury and “aggressive vitality” marked by his first use of triple forte, “fortississimo” (with great loudness) found in the winds, brass and timpani. The entire symphony reflected Stewart’s satisfying mixture of imagination, intuition and excellent musical sense!
With his customary gesture, the charismatic Maestro wove his way through the entire orchestra offering congratulations to practically every member of this fine orchestra he has worked so hard to assemble. Bravo and very well done!