Symphonic Fire: The Santa Cruz Symphony

Music Director & Conductor Daniel Stewart

Under the brilliant direction of Conductor Daniel Stewart, cellist Jonah Kim’s nuanced performance of Antonin Dvořák’s Cello Concerto in B minor, Op. 104, B. 191, demonstrated a deep understanding of the music’s emotional trajectory. The Santa Cruz Orchestra established a backdrop that was warm, luminous and animated by a tangy freshness, as indeed was the playing of Kim.

Kim’s interpretation of contoured passion responded to the music’s lyrical soul. He exhibited an expressive mastery that illuminated the concerto’s essential vitality with an attention to nuance that derived both from mature artistry and the orchestra’s excellent supporting role.

There was an obvious thrill and feeling to this performance that made it irresistible. Jonah Kim is the Principal cellist of the Santa Cruz Symphony. Concertmaster Nigel Armstrong and Maestro Stewart violist have performed together in intimate settings and nothing can replace such musical camaraderie.

Director Stewart provided a quietly affectionate launching pad for Kim’s expressive entry. Not only did Kim possess flawless technical command, lustrous tone-production and an impressive range of dynamics, but his playing also evinced a captivating candor. At times he was observed turning to face the brass, wind or string section with a smile and nod of approval to their performance. On one occasion Kim couldn’t resist a subdued vocal line accompanied by a huge smile of satisfaction.  

For all the red-blooded temperament and freewheeling spontaneity in evidence, it was often in the concerto’s softer, frequently chamber-like passages that Kim and the inimitably songful winds really came into their own. The music’s intimacy and poetry were beautifully performed. 

When one thinks of Rachmaninoff, one instinctively conjures up the image of a massive grand piano in one of his well-known concertos. However, the Symphonic Dances, Op. 45, demonstrated Rachmaninoff’s incredible ability to utilize the symphony orchestra to its fullest range of impressive possibilities.

During the entire performance, Maestro Stewart gave the illusion of a painter with a huge orchestral color palette from which he selected appropriate reds to match the brilliant brass section and calming blues to accommodate the soothing wind section. 

The opening movement had an energetic martial theme that melted into the most beautiful melody of the central section. The melody was soon taken up by the strings and was passionately expanded. The horns and basses provided a steady pulse while the harp accented the texture. The movement ended with the return of the threatening military theme.

The waltz of the second movement had the flare of Ravel’s La Valse, as opposed to Johann Strauss. Rachmaninoff composed it with a hesitant opening that built into a lovely, but sad tune. As it progressed, Stewart built it into whirls and twirls that slowly decayed and became more sinister and almost anti-waltz, perhaps depicting the decay of society as reflected in works by fellow Russian composer of esteem, Sergei Prokofiev. 

The final movement was the heart of the work. A quiet, restless searching interlude led into an explosive, overwhelming statement of Dies Irae blasting forth with trumpets and timpani. This performance was admirably detailed and beautifully crafted. In both works the orchestra displayed growth, development, individuality and clarity.

Stewart is a marvelously intelligent conductor, and to the amazement of all, continues to perform with keen attention to detail without a score. In charismatic fashion, it’s fair to say each member of the orchestra received kudos for their fantastic contribution.     

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Archived in these categories: Classical Era, Concerto, Santa Cruz Symphony.
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