Ensemble Monterey at St. Philips Lutheran Church

Music Director/Conductor John Anderson has a reputation for “knocking ’em out of the ballpark” with his extraordinary ability to find and present outstanding soloists and the best musicians from our community in a series of innovative programs. Well, he did it again last night at St. Philips Lutheran Church in Carmel Valley where an SRO audience was alternately thrilled, enlightened and entertained in Ensemble Monterey’s program, “Song and Dances.”

Ensemble Monterey likes to tag itself as presenting “The Best Music you’ve Never Heard,” and it has a point. I always know that John Anderson is going to drag me kicking and screaming out of my comfort zone (“the truly expressive music of the 19th century”) and open my eyes to treasures I didn’t know existed. So it was last night as we heard a selection of mostly unfamiliar works by Debussy, Martinů, Ginastera, Nathan Halverson, Mahler and Johann Strauß.

Last night for the first time, in addition to being introduced to a series of unfamiliar works, we were also being introduced to three exciting musicians we had not heard before. Soprano Diane Syrcle, a recent transplant from Indiana to Santa Cruz, made an impressive local debut in her performance of a series of songs by Alberto Ginastera. What immediately impressed us was the naturalness of her voice — always intimate and innately musical, with a lovely control of dynamics and shaping of phrases. Her singing in this piece seemed totally natural and inevitable — I couldn’t imagine it being performed any other way.

Harpist Jennifer Cass, while not exactly a newcomer, since she has an impressive record of former appearances in central California, was still new to me, and her riveting performance of Debussy’s Dances Sacred & Profane with a chamber orchestra was startling in its alternations of authoritative boldness, mysterious blending of swirling colors and commanding clarity of melodic lines. This was a masterful performance that drew us in and held us in its spell.

Although baritone Thomas Lehmkuhl is well known to us for his work at Carmel Middle and High School, last night’s performance was the first time I had ever heard him sing. To hear him as soloist with a chamber orchestra in Mahler’s Songs of a Wayfarer (in a transcription by Arnold Schoenberg for chamber orchestra) was a revelation. Lehmkuhl has a powerful voice able to express a kaleidoscope of subtle changing emotions, ranging from euphoria to the darkest of rages. He was impressive and commanding, and I hope we will hear more from him in the future.

We heard an especially pleasing performance by two young players, Nathan Nguyen (pronounced “Winn”) and Daisy Swanson, string students of David Dally, who played a Passacaglia by Handel, arranged by Nathan Halverson for two string players. This was a knockout performance and received a thunderous ovation.

It turned out that two works on the program sort of fell into the category of “ear candy” — works that entertained us more than challenged us. The first, La Revue de Cuisine, was an amusing romp for a sextet of instruments from an original one-act ballet by Martinů, in which the dancers play a variety of cooking utensils — pots, pans, lids and dishcloths, etc. Especially effective were the Tango and Charleston episodes, but all of it was most delightful and enjoyable. The final crowd pleaser was Roses from the South by Johann Strauß, arranged for chamber orchestra by Arnold Schoenberg. Ah, all those wonderful tunes.

Ensemble Monterey’s Chamber Orchestra contains “all the usual suspects” we hear in most Ensemble Monterey concerts. They are the finest and most professional from our area, and they never disappoint. Special kudos were earned last night by pianist Leah Zumberge, who proved equal to many kinds of keyboard styles and challenges during the evening.

We are delighted that John Anderson is retired from MPC and can devote even more time to the presentation of this outstanding series of concerts.

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