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Stephen Prutsman's 'Ocean Parables' washed over the audience at the Santa Cruz Symphony

By Scott MacClelland

YOU'D THINK that a successful career playing well-established piano concertos and the great solo repertoire would inspire a budding composer to the highest classical standards of form, expression and virtuosity. Not so for Stephen Prutsman, a pianist with a history of concerto collaborations with Larry Granger and the Santa Cruz Symphony.

As became clear at the world premiere of his Ocean Parables, a concerto in four movements with a montage of marine images projected on a large screen during the performance, Prutsman aimed low. During the 30-minute John Tesh knockoff, Prutsman sighed and tickled his way through a solo part that didn't begin to challenge his previously observed bravura capabilities. He likewise gave the orchestra a simple texture painted in watercolors.

Watercolors indeed. While the piece posed prettily and decorated itself with bits of exotic percussion, it vied with a montage of oceanic and marine footage to see which--the visuals or the music--could be more subservient to the other. While it strikes me as rather early-on for a rebirth of New Age, that may be due to the trick of time that seems to move faster the older we get.

The work's four movements--all with programmatic titles--were cut from the same cloth, sounding consistent or redundant, depending on your point of view. The piece opened with a six-note motto that reappeared in definitive form at the conclusion. Against its pervasive major tonality, it digressed to the minor when the visuals turned stormy. Throughout, it depended substantially on minimalist ostinatos.

But, primarily, this entire production was designed to wash over its audience like the ocean swells depicted in the video. Never did it aspire to complement its sensuality with intellectual engagement, as if satisfied at making a transient impression.

Examples of equally pastoral music that have stood the test of time are easy to find, but only because their composers insisted on a formal or intellectual rigor that Prutsman appears to have disregarded or taken for granted.

Granger's reprise of the popular Saint-Saëns Symphony no. 3 (Organ) left a decidedly different impression from its last time out, and not just for the use of a new Allen theater organ. Now, the strings are flat on the floor while the winds step up on risers. The strings by themselves certainly developed a richer and more focused sonority, and according to Granger, the players are happy to have gained at least some echo of themselves from the pony walls that ring the floor of Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium. (Their reading of the poco adagio of the first movement achieved a rare beauty of tone.)

However, it seems that for every acoustic fix Granger comes up with, a new problem accompanies it. As more than plainly demonstrated by the Saint-Saëns, the winds were so close to the back wall that as a choir they rolled over the strings like the breaking waves of the Prutsman video. Individually, they deliver almost too much presence and immediacy, a focus that stripped their technique naked. At one softly-intoned cadence, the wind choir's image was so vivid that its out-of-tune players were plainly exposed. (The brass, off to the side, blended in better.)

In the aforementioned adagio, the organ, with Charles Rus at the console, rumbled its diapason tones beneath the strings in a balance that hinted at an acoustic potential in the room that has yet to be reliably pinned down. (Granger now speaks of reflecting panels to be hung from the lighting grid along the sides of the orchestra, even while admitting, "The acoustics change depending on how many tickets we sell.") But when the organ powered up for the final movement, the string sound all but vanished.

After longwinded opening comments from the conductor and board president, the orchestra revived its fading audience with a suitably explosive reading of Ginastera's Malambo, the wildly eruptive dance from Estancia that Granger mused was spiritually linked to the World Wrestling Federation.

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From the February 28-March 7, 2001 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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