The Season Begins
The signs are auspicious for Monterey Symphony and Mozart Society.
Thursday, October 5, 2006
A love affair is already under way between Monterey County and Max Bragado-Darman, music director of Monterey Symphony. I caught up with the maestro in New York, upon his return from conducting the Mexico City philharmonic and before his homecoming in preparation for the Monterey Symphony season, which opens next Thursday, Oct. 14. This will be Bragado’s second year at the helm of the orchestra, his first full season.
“I’m looking forward to coming home,” he said. “The Monterey Symphony is second to none. It must be considered a leading orchestra, even though it serves a small community. “
Bragado told me he believes Monterey Symphony concerts “are as good as any you will hear in San Francisco and other larger cities.
“The musicians are phenomenal,” he said, pointing out that many fine players reside in and near Monterey County, while others come from Los Angeles, San Francisco and beyond to perform with this ensemble.
“We have the musicians, the experience and the programming equal to those of the major symphonies,” he said. “What we do not have is the budget.”
Instead of presenting a concert every week, like many big-city symphony orchestras do, the Monterey Symphony presents seven over the course of a season. This season ends in May of 2007.
Maestro Bragado doesn’t exaggerate. A gala fundraising performance last week at Sunset Center was a “pops” >>Salute to Broadway. For lesser ensembles, this could have been a cornball Lawrence Welk-style evening of Symphony Lite, but this orchestra can really swing. The horn section wailed out a wet version of the burlesque >>Overture from Gypsy, the percussion section rocked authentically behind a >>Little Shop of Horrors medley, and throughout, the ensemble evidenced that round, full, balanced sound achieved by only the best orchestras.
This season will stretch even such accomplished professionals. It’s a “Season of Fifths”—the centerpiece of each of the seven concerts will be the fifth work of a great composer: on Oct. 14 Shostakovich’s Symphony No.5 in D minor; in November the Mozart Violin Concerto No. 5 in A major; and later, Prokofiev, Beethoven, Marques, Saint-Saens and Hanson. Not a lightweight among them.
“These are the best fifth symphonies ever written,” Bragado says. “The composers attained their highest achievement in these works.” He jokingly refers to the lineup as a “high five” that the Symphony is giving to its audience “as we try to build bridges, create new friendships, get closer to our community.”
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Bragado says that growing up he didn’t know anything about symphonic music until he went to a rehearsal of the National Orchestra of Spain in Madrid, where he was born. “That was the beginning of my life with this music,” he says, adding that he wants local children to have access to such an experience, “to come to rehearsals, to hear our musicians demonstrate their instruments in schools.”
“It’s very important if we are going to have audiences for symphonic music tomorrow.
“In Philadelphia, New York, Cleveland, Boston, the orchestras are worldwide symbols of those cities. I want Monterey to feel the same way about their symphony, just as people feel they own their parks, their beaches. I want to do a good job of reaching out to new audiences so that the community feels the power of great symphonic music and understands that it is for everyone, not an elite.”
The symphony must be doing just that. Although audiences for classical music are declining nationwide, the Monterey Symphony audiences are growing, according to Robert Pack, director of ticketing. “Our subscription audiences are renewing at an unusually high rate, our Salinas audiences are much younger than usual. Max Bragado-Darman is an exciting conductor and our programs are dynamic. We’re building new traditions every day.”
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The Mozart Society opened its season on Sept. 29 with a performance by Alexander Kobrin. As he walked onstage at the Sunset Center, Kobrin looked impossibly young, remarkably pale and every bit the master. Barely acknowledging the audience, he sat at the piano, his somber air diminishing not an iota as he dove without a breath into Mozart’s Sonata in D major. He showed himself up to the challenge of this technically demanding work, alternately lyrical and portentious, and so met the high expectations of the audience who had come to hear this Russian prodigy, the youngest-ever winner of the coveted Van Cliburn medal.
The Haydn Variations in F minor that followed was ornate, with a storytelling right hand countering bass note progressions of the left, reminiscent of stride piano, woven at the climax into an elaborate Baroque canopy of high trills wafting downward toward the rhythmic ground.
From there, without much acknowledgement of the appreciative audience, Kobrin found the warmth and passion he needed to convey the intensity of Beethoven’s Sonata in A flat, at first brooding, then thoughtful, then a torrent, Kobrin and the Sunset Center audience immersed in one of Beethoven’s most dramatic works.
The Chopin etudes that followed in the second half of the evening exhibited Kobrin’s virtuosity, though the performance suffered somewhat from the sharpness of the Yamaha piano, which had been provided by Kobrin’s tour sponsor. A small price to pay for such an extraordinary evening: Kobrin and the Mozart Society delivered an auspicious beginning to what promises to be an exciting season.