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The Arts
01.30.08

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Farm Girl: Vermont composer Gwyneth Walker's 'The Rainbow Sign' premiered last weekend.

Dampened Enthusiasm

Brittle tone mars Santa Cruz Symphony's rainy-day take on Tchaikovsky.

By Scott MacClelland


While he was not afraid of bombast, the Russian composer Pyotr Tchaikovsky always infused his music with a stylish elegance. This is exactly what went missing in Stephen Prutsman's hard-bitten performance of Tchaikovsky's popular First Piano Concerto on a rain-soaked Sunday afternoon at Watsonville's Mello Center. Favoring an edgy, brittle tone, Prutsman made much of the concerto's well-known bravura episodes with suitable impatience, although some of the notes got swallowed in his pedaling and prestidigitation. The middle movement proved to be the most satisfying, its lilting 6/8 meter soothing at first like a lullaby, then sizzling in its prestissimo middle section steeplechase. In the finale, it was back to percussive, metallic strokes and, in the flourishing solo just before the end, the pianist actually drew ugly sound from the hall's resident Steinway. While the Santa Cruz County Symphony and conductor John Larry Granger held up their end of the bargain, the initial audience outburst of approval faded so quickly the pianist never had even the hint of an invitation for an encore.

Beethoven's universally acclaimed Fifth Symphony occupied the second half of the program in a generous 35-minute reading that Granger conducted from memory. Alas, it lacked both suspense and ongoing excitement. This was due to two causes, one from the orchestra, the other from the podium. For this work to get its bracing, breath-holding quality the musicians need to articulate their notes crisply and cleanly. The strings were mostly at fault in this regard (though the cellos and basses came through in the fugal "trio" section of the third movement). At the same time, the conductor is called upon to underscore the dynamic contrasts between soft and loud. The way the work was played here might be appropriate to the Pastoral Symphony, but doesn't do justice to Beethoven's reputation for "seizing fate by the throat."

The concert opened with the world premiere of Vermont-based composer Gwyneth Walker's The Rainbow Sign: An American Overture. Lasting a brief four minutes, the work colorfully arranges the old spiritual Hold On to the Plow, orchestrated with a sure hand that begins with growling percussion. The tune itself first appears on the cellos, then makes its way through the other instrumental choirs. Walker is probably best known for works of this character, folk songs set in symphonic attire, and sounding, as she says, "like Copland with a sense of humor."

As this is the symphony's 50th anniversary season, Granger took a moment before the program began to point out the musicians of the orchestra with 20 or more years of service, and a second round favoring those with more than 10 years' tenure—a rare nod of recognition to the people who make afternoons like this possible.


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