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[whitespace] Wit and Standards

John Larry Granger provided both technical polish and interpretive verve at Santa Cruz Symphony concert at the Mello Center in Watsonville

By Scott MacClelland

AS IF BY SURPRISE, several major 20th-century composers found themselves writing "neobaroque" and "neoclassical" music. This unexpected turn of taste drew in the likes of Stravinsky, Respighi, Ravel, Bloch, Strauss, Prokofiev, Martinu and Rodrigo, among many others.

For Stravinsky, Pulcinella, a ballet proposed by Serge Diaghilev, meant writing clever arrangements of existing works by Giovanni Pergolesi, composer of the first opera buffa to have stood the test of time, La serva padrona.

Even though research has raised doubts that some of this music descended with any degree of authenticity from Pergolesi, Stravinsky's concert suite has itself stood the test of time. Under the direction of John Larry Granger, it received a witty and sparkling performance by the Santa Cruz Symphony last Sunday at Watsonville's Mello Center.

Indeed, the work showed off many of the orchestra's strengths, not least its wind complement, where various solo lines sounded with virtuosic clarity and confidence. Leaders of the string sections also held up the organization's standards of quality.

Granger has not only set and sustained the orchestra's historically highest technical standards but now gives his musicians a genuine artistic leadership. While that would seem to be the goal of any conductor, few even come close. On the artistic point alone, most conductors (of my experience), including some of the biggest names, fail to deliver a vision that sets their work apart. Whether you agree or disagree with the resultant interpretation, at least Granger gives you one.

However, this lofty goal eludes even Granger from time to time. In Mendelssohn's Symphony in A (Italian), the reduced orchestra found itself off balance in the opening movement, sections not in sync with one another and the first violins scratching slightly out of tune with each other. The implication is that the work got less than sufficient rehearsal time. That conclusion is even more tempting since Stravinsky most likely commanded the lion's share of it. But Mendelssohn is often as transparent as Mozart, and precision is equally demanded.

Fortunately, as the composer's greatest symphony unfolded, ensemble problems sorted themselves out. The pilgrim's march of the second movement was secured by its inexorable walking bass (a movement that inspired Berlioz to imitate it in his Harold in Italy). The finale, named for the rhythm of the Italian folk dance, saltarello, also incorporates the tarantella, a supposed cure for the bite of the tarantula (which, while rarely considered lethal, makes a good excuse for wild dancing). By now, the orchestra was in full flush, confident and bitten with motivation.

If Rodrigo's Concierto de Aranjuez found moments of tentative playing by the orchestra and solo guitarist David Tanenbaum, the expressive spirit was never in doubt. Tanenbaum's instrument spoke clearly over the footlights with a warm, articulate projection. Granger held the large orchestra in good balance with the soloist, while the minor scales and flamenco ornamentations enhanced the work's sensuality.

Those same elements constitute the simple ingredients of the celebrated adagio and magically reminded all present that in the right hands a masterpiece can be cobbled from the most basic materials. (As if to reiterate that very point, Tanenbaum, Granger and the strings served up the largo from Vivaldi's Concerto in D as an encore.) Diane Machado-Wyant haunted the proceedings with her lamenting cor anglais solo.

Granger seems to have found the ideal acoustic potential at Mello. The reflecting shell now delivers the sonic goods with clarity and balance to all areas of the auditorium (although I have avoided testing the response in those seats tucked under the balcony). Certainly, the hall gives the orchestra a far better response than the Civic Auditorium in Santa Cruz, where the strings constantly struggle to achieve a cohesive presence.

At the least, Mello is far more music-friendly than the Civic. Comfortable seating makes sure the ears are not the only anatomical component that leaves happy. The word is apparently out. The symphony's Mello audiences are getting larger, including both younger and older patrons.

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From the January 10-17, 2001 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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