Continuing the theme of the Monterey Symphony’s present season — “Concert Grand” — a season that includes in each concert a piano concerto soloist, we had the pleasure of hearing pianist Josu de Solaun returning to perform for us for the third time. Joining Conductor Max Bragado-Darman and the Monterey Symphony musicians, Solaun was soloist in a rarely heard concerto, the Concerto No. 5 in F Major, Op. 103 by Camille Saint-Saëns. Accessing the music streaming website YouTube, you can hear over 130 different performances of the Saint-Saëns Piano Concerto No. 2, but only a handful of the Concerto No. 5. It is safe to assume that most of the audience at Sunset Center last night (myself included) was hearing this concerto in a live performance for the first time.
Composed in Luxor during one of Saint-Saëns’ many visits to Egypt and exploiting his use of melodic elements of the harmonic minor scale, this concerto been called the “Egyptian,” and this name is quite appropriate. The first two movements have a hint of things mysterious and exotic, and Solaun produced gorgeous sounding passages and phrases in which he brought out the best qualities of the Monterey Symphony’s Hamburg Steinway. The final movement is a virtuosic, kaleidoscopic toccata that requires fingers of steel and tight control to keep it from running away with itself. Solaun faced off the challenge and succeeded in bringing the concerto to a wildly successful conclusion. The audience acclaim was so enthusiastic he was recalled to perform one encore — one of Debussy’s Preludes, Ondine, which Solaun informed us from the stage continued the ambience of French music heard previously in the Saint-Saëns Concerto. He also added that Ondine depicted a playful and malicious water sprite. In this brief little piece, Solaun demonstrated his absolute and magical control of subtle sonorities and tonal colors. It was gorgeous playing.
The concert began with an audience favorite by Johannes Brahms, his Academic Festival Overture. Typical Brahmsian textures with its triumphant quote of Gaudiamus Igitur, the perennial favorite so often sung or performed at university graduation ceremonies brought out the best in the Monterey Symphony players.
Concluding the concert we heard an exciting performance of Schumann’s Symphony No. 2 in C Major. Less often performed than Symphonies No. 1 and 3, it was a pleasure to hear how Max Bragado-Darman and the musicians brought out the best in the the exciting second movement Scherzo, the poignant and affecting third movement, Adagio espressivo, and wound it all up in the final Allegro molto vivace.