Soprano Soloist Michelle Bradley
Musically, the standards of the Santa Cruz Symphony have reached a strikingly high mark on January 28, as Music Director Daniel Stewart’s direct, beautifully balanced conducting continues to perform works of interest and introduce marvelous vocal talent. Case in point was found in the wonderful and impressive voice of soprano Michelle Bradley, who fills every role with finesse, awesome breath control and depth of performance.
The four songs and poets were Frühling (Spring) Hermann Hesse, September (September) Hermann Hesse, Beim Schlafengehen (Sleeping) Hermann Hesse and Im Abendrot (In the Evening) Joseph von Eichendorff.
It is apparent Richard Strauss understood the quintessential example of the soprano voice and set his Vier letze Lieder (Four last Songs, 1948) to music with this concept well in mind. His wife Pauline was a soprano and Strauss composed these works with extraordinary love and imagination for the voice.
Ms. Bradley entered the stage attired in an attractive white outfit that from my advantage point contained a slight hint of light lemon color. Maestro Stewart blended the orchestra magnificently allowing for Ms. Bradley’s long-breathed cantilena to become the central characteristic of his Last Four Songs. With this in mind, one of many moments Ms. Bradley’s magnificent deep, powerfully beautiful voice soared like a magical bird and filled the entire Mello Center. This was most evident in the third poem “All are made to leave off singing and dancing by the air which now gives pleasure…” when the strings and voice matched this idea perfectly.
Under the keen ear of Stewart, the vitally important violin solos performed by concertmaster Nigel Armstrong were impeccable — string playing and singing perfectly blended into a superb musical experience of quality and class. The four works augment slightly in duration: 4 minutes, 4.5 minutes, 5.5 minutes with the fourth almost doubling with 7 minutes and emphasizing extreme orchestral depth with the contrabassoon bass trombone and timpani.
The four works are permeated with melancholic orchestral coloring infusing imaginary textures of russets, deep reds and golden browns made for some of the most ambrosial music of its genre.
The orchestra opened the afternoon’s concert with Wanger’s rousing orchestral opening that featured the two main stately ideas, the ceremonial masters’ theme and the lyrical “Prize Song.” The beautiful, blended quality of the horns and trumpets emphasized Wagner’s love for the orchestra’s brass family. Each of the four musical families performed as if they were soloists competing against each other. This was orchestral Wagner at its best!
Scheherazade conveyed a musical electricity of high voltage. This magnetism showed Rimsky-Korsakov’s orchestral prowess and ability to blend instruments with great understanding and mastery creating wonderful orchestral textures. Each of the four movements featured the violin virtuosity and artistry of concertmaster Nigel Armstrong and collaborating harpist Madeline Jarzembak, whose playing echoed the lines of the violin with perfection. Throughout the dynamic range the resonance of violin tone was superb.
Noteworthy were the many solo moments by the horn, bassoon, tuba and percussion. The quasi recitando bassoon solo near the end of the second movement and the espressivo oboe solo that follows were masterfully performed. In the final climax of the fourth movement the trombones entered the final theme with extra thrust that was most satisfying.
In each of the three works performed, the entire symphony reflected Stewart’s satisfying mixture of imagination, intuition and excellent musical sense, and these works were performed without score! In 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!