When the Monterey Symphony Orchestra resumes their 2019-2020 season on Feb. 15, the program chosen by conductor and music director Max Bragado-Darman offers two 19th-century massive symphonic masterworks. But that is where the similarities between the two end.
One is the popular, oft-performed Scheherazade Op. 35 (1888) by Russian composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, which is based on Arabian Nights. The other is the lesser known, rarely performed Enigma Variations Op. 36 (1899), by English composer Edward Elgar. Both are masterpieces, in different ways.
“This my final season here, and I wanted to choose compositions that I personally feel very connected with, whether they are well known or not,” says Bragado-Darman, who will retire this year after 16 years conducting. “Both of these pieces fit that bill.”
The Elgar composition is a kaleidoscopic work unusually organized into 14 very brief movements (the Variations), which run two minutes or less. They are wildly divergent in style, with each being a psychological sketch of friends, family and places in the composer’s life. Elgar exploits the full range of the symphonic palate, displaying enormous sonic variety from slow, gentle passages to much faster moments that include boisterous exhibitions of the big guns of timpani and brass. Strings, meanwhile, alternate between pastoral and ebullient. The barely audible pianississimo finale to the ninth variation is among the most elegant finishes in the entire classical canon.
“The Elgar is a tremendous work,” Bragado-Darman says. “It’s incredibly challenging, with very fast sections which also demand poise, stamina and elegance all at the same time. It’s a lot of work. No wonder it is not performed very much.”
By contrast, the Scheherazade is more traditional in its four-movement structure and more literal. “The melodies are immediately recognizable,” Bragado-Darman says. “It’s a workhorse of the classical canon. It’s suggestive, not descriptive, so it allows you to use your imagination to the hilt, with lots of musical dialogue. It’s literally a perfect piece.”
That doesn’t mean it’s easy. “Although the Elgar might be judged as more technically demanding, it is also a challenge to present a piece as well-known as Scheherazade because it is so well known,” he says. “In the presence of such masterworks as these, one often feels small no matter how many times you may have performed it.”
MONTEREY SYMPHONY’S OVATION CONCERT III 8pm Saturday, Feb. 15; 3pm Sunday, Feb. 16. Sunset Center, San Carlos and Ninth, Carmel. $41-$82. 620-2048, sunsetcenter.org