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Oxana Loves the Piano: Russian-born Oxana Yablonskaya plays a mean piano.

Unfinished Optimism

The Monterey Symphony is back in the saddle with Max Bragado-Darman's insights

By Scott MacClelland

After a yearlong artistic dry spell, the Monterey Symphony's fortunes are looking up. Spanish conductor Max Bragado-Darman has just begun a five-year contract as music director of an orchestra in serious need of sustained discipline from the podium. As evidenced by Bragado's appearance Sunday at Carmel's Sunset Center, area subscribers and supporters have a reason for optimism, principally demonstrated by his performances of Schubert's Symphony in B Minor "Unfinished," and Beethoven's Symphony No. 8 in F.

A guest conductor of this ensemble over several years, Bragado has publicly bragged that the Monterey Symphony is one of the best in the world. His performance on Jan. 15 in Salinas suggested otherwise, with ponderous brass overwhelming the strings in a Buxtehude chaconne and ensemble insecurity blunting the impact of a Schumann symphony.

Though ensemble roughness pestered last Sunday's concert on and off, things were noticeably tighter and more under control. Bragado's Schubert was broadly phrased and dynamically scaled, showing it off as the style template for the symphonies of Anton Bruckner, and showing him off as an insightful interpreter and skilled leader. A boisterous reading of the Beethoven, that composer's most jovial symphony, swept along with a bracing pulse, but suffered ensemble blurring and some fuzzy attacks. But there were jewels to be found. Slowed and quieted, the trio of the minuet was especially enchanting, not least for its variety of wind solos.

In a homecoming appearance, Russian-born pianist Oxana Yablonskaya gave a hearty and memorable performance of Grieg's popular Piano Concerto in A Minor. There was personal authority and robustness to her interpretation, and at moments more attention paid by her to the conductor than the other way around. For that matter, it seemed that Bragado was working harder to hold the reading together. But for the kinds of glitches that will be remedied over the coming months and years of Bragado's tenure, the concerto provided its listeners with an exciting and satisfying result. Yablonskaya's Yamaha grand made a strong impression, though considerably different in its tonal colorations from the Steinway normally used by the symphony.

Though the Grieg, Schubert and Beethoven warmed up the hall, the concert-opener, Mozart's Magic Flute overture, sounded brittle and edgy. Sunset Theater offers a bright, transparent acoustic, but it is inherently dry. The Carmel Bach Festival is the only classical producer to use the electronic sound enhancement system that was installed to compensate for the lack of a natural resonance in the room. The other classical producers and presenters had decided the enhancement sounds artificial. (Perhaps because of their position closer to the proscenium, chamber ensembles seem to get the best results.)

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From the March 9-16, 2005 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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