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[whitespace] Conductor John Larry Granger
Magnificent Maestro: John Larry Granger's work with the symphony showed dramatic results in the Sept. 26 opening concert.

Big Bang Theory

Conductor John Larry Granger leads the Santa Cruz County Symphony in an explosive season opener

By Scott MacClelland

WHAT'S NOT to like? The Santa Cruz County Symphony stood up handsomely after summer break for its challenging season opener. Sunday at Watsonville's Mello Center, Maurice Ravel's Alborada del Gracioso got a reading as polished as it was explosive from conductor John Larry Granger and the symphony.

Here, indeed, is a showpiece for orchestral color and effect. Granger's control of dynamics proved as masterful as the multitude of signature instrumental solos. Since the sound of a conductor's baton is nil, Granger's increasing command of results over the last couple of seasons has been startling--and worthy of expanded pride within this community.

But, of course, the baton remains silent, and credit must also go to the rising ensemble and the individual discipline of the players. All parties would remain ahead of the curve in the next piece, Sergei Prokofiev's Piano Concerto in C, a tour de force ranging from steely scintillation to haunting themes to subtle rhythmic constructions. Thanks to the variations of its second movement, the piece covers virtually the entire spectrum of Prokofiev's inventive personality and lacks only the cloying emotionality of Sergei Rachmaninoff (which, not surprisingly, Prokofiev detested.)

But, as has been the memorable case before, the primary focus of the concerto was the gifted young Aaron Miller, now an undergrad at Harvard University. Miller played the work from memory and displayed an artistic maturity belied by his youth. His performance went beyond technical authority to the composer's creative imagination and stylistic assimilation. Framed by formidably virtuosic outer movements, the centrally placed variations contain the prismatic jewels of the work. Here, Miller and Granger put each section to the test and produced vivid and impressive results, the Steinway glowing with colors, the orchestra radiant in exotic combinations. If Miller could be held to account, it was only for want of more percussive metal and razor sharp edges in the bravura passages, that signature brilliance of Prokofiev's early years as Russia's l'enfant terrible.

The fact that conductor Granger committed Amy Beach's Symphony in E Minor "Gaelic" to memory begs a question. Does he seriously expect to play the work often enough to have warranted the time and effort? To be sure, he and his orchestra gave a fine account of the "first symphony composed by an American woman." Lasting nearly 45 minutes, the 1896 composition was, as Granger promised from the stage, an excellent work, based on original and Irish folk themes, crafted to the highest standards and betraying no lack of confidence in its manipulation of materials, according to classical models. Granger also pointed out the work's Schumann-esque doubling of strings, the popular 19th century way of constructing sonority from the basses up.

The work itself offered the orchestra plenty of dynamic contrasts, which were exploited with impressive effect. Each of the four movements contrasted softer passages with noisy stuff, and the second movement, alla siciliana, made the most points for charm and gentle wit. Solos spotlighted most of the wind and brass players and included the relatively exotic sounds of cor anglais and bass clarinet. Concertmaster Kristina Anderson and first cellist Gerald Miller shared a lovely duet in the slow movement. To place the work stylistically is to visit the early symphony of Antonin Dvorak--before his Slavic fingerprints began to appear--and the influence of Johannes Brahms as filtered through the conservatories of New York and Boston. Beach is an impressive composer, but not one with readily recognizable fingerprints.

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From the September 29-October 6, 1999 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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