The Santa Cruz Symphony: Invocations

Esa-Pekka Salonen

The Sunday, April 7 performance of the Santa Cruz Orchestra offered a unique treat in that two of today’s finest leading composer-conductors were represented: Maestro Danny Stewart on the podium conducting Karawane (2014), a composition by fellow colleague, Finnish Maestro Esa-Pekka Salonen. In 2020, Salonen will become Music Director/Conductor of the San Francisco Symphony. With the passing of Pierre Boulez, Esa-Pekka Salonen seemed the likeliest leading active composer-conductor to assume that honor and the many challenges associated with it. 

Knowing the premiere of Karawane would be held in Zürich, Salonen decided to connect the work to the city’s history, particularly the origins of Dadaism in 1916. Salonen wrote in the score program notes, “Soon I settled for perhaps the best known Dada poem (or ‘Lautpoesie’, ‘Sound Poetry’ as it was called) by Hugo Ball (1886-1927), the founder of Dada, author of the Dada Manifesto, and the central figure in the Dadaist movement.”

Maestro Stewart seemingly exhausted the many possibilities available from the vast orchestral color pallet designed by Salonen. The effect was arresting, remarkably poignant, and an attractive primitive allusion in a contemporary setting. The 30-minute work began with a chorus of buzzing, hissing whispers that gradually condensed into syllables and lines of gibberish from the poem like the fourth line: “higo bloisko russula huju.” On the larger orchestral canvas the chorus’s hypnotic incantations had the undergirding of a glistening, iridescent body that added to the orchestral landscape, at times rhythmically oscillating, and at times creating a nocturnal, dreamlike, underworld state that merged from one extreme to the next.

Salonen’s use of percussion in the orchestration was most impressive. No fewer than 5 percussionists and 10 gongs of as many sizes helped create a mystical texture. The strings rendered a moto perpetuo pizzicato on top of which the voices gave the allusion of drifting and floating in harmony that was “tonal” in character. The work had a sense of unity in this respect and created a static, orbital sense of movement without pauses, wonderfully primordial rather than surging ahead. At the 10-minute mark the work accelerated, incorporating more intensive drumming and vibraphone in the percussion family. The orchestra’s soloist role was significant. At the 13- minute mark the passionate cello solo eased into an oboe duet layered by percussion and strings that created an eerie, quasi primitive texture. Around the 22-minute mark the chorus adopted a Chameleon-like effect, slowly changing tonal color matching that of the orchestra. Allusions of swirling through the various Canti of Dante’s Purgatorio were vivid and pronounced, at times entering the underworld of the surreal, pronounced, accented and eddying in the lowest instruments of the orchestra.

The winds and strings punctuated the chorus with firm downbeats that receded, swirled with intensity and gathered momentum into the tumultuous, explosive finale climax. One could say the work was theatrical or even cinematic as instrumental and choral rhythmical and static combinations changed; as colors, moods and textures faded one into the other. 

The Cabrillo Symphonic Chorus under the keen eye and ear of Cheryl Anderson was wonderfully prepared for this vocal outer-space journey. The orchestra and chorus blended with dynamics that were impressive. Karawane was an exhilarating 21stcentury musical experience from Maestro Stewart’s very first downbeat!

The contrast between Karawane and the magnificent Mass in C Major, Op. 86 (1807) by Beethoven couldn’t be greater, but also served as a perfect compliment. Beethoven’s Mass in C Major is a humble work, certainly less furious, less ecstatic and shorter in duration than his late-period Missa Solemnis masterpiece. In its simplest form, five parts of the Mass were used: Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus and Agnus Dei. Beethoven added the Benedictus. The performers in this Mass were soprano Lei Xu, mezzo soprano Megan Esther Grey, tenor Seungiu Mario Bahg and bass Patrick Guetti all from the Metropolitan Opera and the Metropolitan Opera’s Lindemann Young Artist Development Program.

At times its whirling fugues gave way to choral passages that carried the scent of incense, medieval plainchant, moving in unison and octaves. The work’s scale kept changing. We heard the a cappella chorus for a moment, before the four soloists moved to the foreground for a fine-spun moment of pleading song that faded into a general silence, out of which emerged a plangent clarinet solo. There were monumental tutti outbursts like light leaping from the shadows. But the work didn’t call attention to drama or effects, instead one felt Beethoven’s calm devotion. Maestro Stewart led a performance that was elegantly shaded, organic with tempi that felt just right, the performance pulsed and moved gracefully.

The Chorus directed by Cheryl Anderson was the sound of peace, softly aglow in the Sanctus with the sound of peace. The timpani punctuated the texture with effective precision. All four soloists were solid yet over time, it was the elegance of the quartet as a whole that made the deepest impression, as in the Benedictus, and then in the “dona nobis pacem”of the Agnus Dei, alongside the tender clarinet, flute and horn entrances that were impressive. It ended whisper-like.

As with the Missa Solemnis, the orchestra played an important role not only in the tutti, but also in the quieter moments of the Mass, especially the winds and the solo horn in the concluding Dona nobis pacem. The Cabrillo Chorus and four soloists all delivered their parts with tenderness and  emotional conviction. A most impressive Finale to an impressive 61stseason!


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