Santa Cruz Symphony Ascendance

Soloist Jon Nakamatsu

On Sunday, October 13, the Santa Cruz Symphony under the direction of Maestro Danny Stewart opened its 62nd season at the Mello Center for the Performing Arts with three works that covered a time span of some 250 years. In perfect tune with Maestro Stewart’s imaginative programming, the concert offered works the audience knows and loves, a concerto from Beethoven’s growth and development period, one of Stravinsky’s finest ballet scores and a new work by Mason Bates. The 2019-2020 season was off to a most exciting start. 

Mothership, composed in 2014 by Mason Bates (1977-) represents his largest work in which contemporary American “modern” style blends orchestral with electronic sounds. Having worked on the Sal-Mar Construction, a real-time music performance computer, I understand Bates has taken off on a similar flight, but in a different, theatrical orbit.   

The total sound incorporated samplings of orchestral moments that darted the space in nimble loops by the strings and flutes and the entrance of electronically produced drum beat punctuations reminiscent of those employed by jazzercisists, all of which kept many feet tapping to the pulse. The dense chaotic textures at the five-minute mark were well designed and executed by the orchestra. Several more subtle jazz-like, popular music moments offered interesting textural contrast, however, one couldn’t help fixate on the overall Star Wars experience. Special note for the fine trumpet performance and Concertmaster Nigel Armstrong’s excellent solo. All in all, the work was a perfect example of the other side of the contemporary musical coin, well performed and by all accounts well received!

As an interesting point of reference, The Firebird (1910) was Igor Stravinsky’s first large-scale work for orchestra. He was 27 and prior to the Firebird had only published five compositions. The Firebird was, of course, the great ballet sensation of that year.

Stravinsky set the work in five movements: Introduction – The Firebird and Its Dance, the Firebird’s Variation; The Princess’ Khorovod; Infernal Dance of King Kaschchei; Berceuse and Finale.

The first two minutes of Sunday’sperformanceevoked an eerie scene with the double basses pacing at piano in march-like step before the entry of the winds followed by brass in a moment of playful counter point. The fast harmonic arpeggios in the violins and cellos against the steady canvas of background texture was well done and effective. The Dance of The Firebird introduced charming bucolic elements with harp and string glissandi that provided the ups and downs of a fairy-tale with sequences that elicited the sentimentality of love or a wedding, book-ended by fast-paced sequences that made one think of the struggle of being torn apart by physical separation. 

The capture of the Firebird around the 8 minute mark paired the oboes and English horn against the trumpets in precise staccato counter point, well done! The thunderous bass drum punctuations almost sent the audience running for shelter.   

The audience was treated to an afternoon of scintillating orchestral color and percussive intricacies. The work also contained colorful harmony, incorporating chromatic movement as a means of building energy and also as a narrative tool. 

I found this piece incredibly inspiring, particularly rhythmically. It contained interesting contrast in tempi, moving from slow to fast between and within sections in a remarkably organic and confident way. It’s melodic parts contain continuous rhythmic variation and development that often were incredibly complex. When combined together they created broad polyrhythmic textures, which were frequently contrasted with much thinner orchestration to great effect. 

Commendations are not only due to the woodwind and brass sections for their luscious sound and sparkling intonation, and to the many soloists, but the entire orchestra triumphed, as witnessed by the Maestro’s acknowledgement of each individual section. 

As Dante Alighieri bridged the medieval and modern world, so too did Beethoven bridge the worlds of classical and romantic music. Jon Nakamatsu has become our highly respected and admired “local” Keyboard Master. His piano flourishes opened the concerto in grand style, trills, scale runs as Maestro Stewart gave full symphonic breadth to the grandiose orchestral exposition. At the three-minute mark the orchestra entered with the iambic (weak strong) rhythm in the winds and brass that carried over into the strings. The first movement was a blend of exceptional piano virtuosity and orchestral coloring.  

The second movement opened with 90 seconds of orchestral beauty, marked by a precise double bass pizzicatto. Stewart continued with splendiferous tuttis while Nakamatsu took every opportunity to display his feathery leggiero touch, his elegant chord voicing, and tone that ranged from soft and passionate to brightly singing and powerful. The resulting contrast was most agreeable and appreciated. Nakamatsu continued his introspective ways, exploring shades of piano and pianissimo, as if it were a quasi jazz improvisation rather than a rendering of a score while Maestro Stewart wove the orchestra sound at precise dynamic levels to produce balance and a colorful sound tapestry, impressively realized! 

Nakamatsu opened the third movement with spirited virtuosity as the orchestra entered with its equally spirited contribution. Both first and third movement cadenzas displayed Nakamatsu’s artistry and virtuosity. A standing ovation was in order and continued until Nakamatsu sat down to perform an encore that was a wonderful surprise: Scott Joplin’s Ragtime solo, The Entertainer, which exploited Nakamatsu’s full artistic capacity.

This was yet another marvelous opening season performance by the Santa Cruz Orchestra that under Maestro Stewart’s baton just keeps soaring to new musical experiences encountering new horizons. 

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