Contemporary works are much like contemporary art. The major difference is one can spend time viewing an art work, looking at it from several angles in an attempt to better understand what in many cases the artist intended to depict. However, and unfortunately, music is performed in real time and as it passes, so too does the time it demands for a better understanding.
“Enlightenment” is a most appropriate title for the opening concert of the orchestra’s 2019 season, and it was filled with wonderful surprises. Like the tortoise found in Hindu mythology, appearing capable of carrying the heavens on its back, one hears and witnesses towering achievements from our young conductor. In order to reach such heights, Maestro Stewart has created an impressive musical atmosphere based on mutual respect and partnership. When this occurs, impressive musical results are the artistic consequence, a fact the supportive audience has experienced during his tenure. He has built the technical quality of the orchestra much in the manner of the late Pierre Boulez, and his contemporary Esa-Pekka Salonen now of the San Francisco Symphony, who forever look for perfection in details and refinement in the intimacy of the works they perform. Especially evident was the orchestra’s sound in the Mozart Symphony No. 40. The orchestra’s development sounded like an impressive “major big city orchestra”!
San Francisco take note!
Bonny Doon, composed by John Wineglass (1973) was influenced by the pastoral setting reflected by the vast array of wildlife that live in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Perhaps also influenced by the French composer Olivier Messiaen who was also in awe of the wonderful sounds produced by birds. Bonny Doon set to music a plethoraof bird calls, whistles and the mighty wood pecker. The dynamic level “pianissimo” is but one of Maestro Stewart’s specialties and came off at as near inaudible a level as possible. The peaceful orchestral setting soon meandered down to the Pacific Ocean and off to a Scottish flare with Concertmaster Nigel Armstrong rendering a special solo touch.
Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) scored his Variations on a Rococo Theme Op. 33 for a reduced orchestra consisting of pairs of each of the four basic woodwinds, two horns and the usual strings found in the late 18thcentury. Also keeping in the style trumpets and percussion are absent. The work is composed using a theme and a set of eight variations and a solo cellist. In this performance the audience was treated to the artistry of 19 year old Jeremy Tai, who is a musical force destined for a fantastic future! Absent are the customary orchestral tuttis that allow a moment or so for the cellist to rest a bit. In addition, Tai was challenged by playing in the high register of the cello, a challenge he conquered with grace and virtuosity. The eight variations offered well balanced structures from lively and graceful to a conversation between solo cello and orchestra, a melancholy mood and in the final eight variation, a well placed coda that contrasted the variation itself stating a sense of drama as Tchaikovsky reintroduces the theme and as Beethoven did in the fourth movement of his glorious ninth symphony. Overall, well balanced dynamically, precise attacks and moments that allowed the orchestra to set diploma-level moments in which Jeremy displayed special artistic poise, warmth and coherence of controlled pianissismos, glissandi and trills that immediately anchored the ear. The coda greatly contrasted the character of the variation itself, embodying a greater sense of drama as Tchaikovsky reintroduces the theme and alludes to several of the previous variations. Eventually the orchestra and soloist ended gloriously in A major, concluding the Rococo journey with flare and panache. The audience was treated to no less than THREE encores from J S Bach’s Suite No. 3: Prelude, Sarabande and Gigue, all performed with the prodigious gift of consummate artistry!
Mozart (1756-1791) composed 41 symphonies and 27 Piano Concertos. The Symphony number 40 was composed in 1788, coming late in his life with a full compliment of compositional brilliance to support his efforts. Despite the superbly crisp lower string accompaniment to the main theme with divided violas that provided crucial bite, the rather dark, somber iconic main theme entered and remained fixed like a golden thread throughout a fabric. Under Maestro Stewart’s baton, the orchestra kept a brisk tempo and a dynamic consistency that left nothing to be desired. “Classical Eloquence” would be more precise.
The andante had a gentle, but inexorable flow with entrancingly ethereal woodwind passages. The well-known Menuetto, Allegretto-Trio adhered to the intended dance-like feel while maintaining immense gravitas in which the trio was performed as it was intended, as a trio. The tempo and mood in the finale were spot on: urgent, intense, but not hectic. Orchestral Mozart at its best shined with brilliance, and the maturity of Stewart’s thoughts on the music were pertinent and achieved unrestrained overall exhilaration. As a final departing gesture, the orchestra performed an encore of Schumann’s Träumerei, touching and wonderfully done. BRAVO Maestro and orchestra!