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[whitespace] Granger for President

Leadership of the SC Symphony rises to presidential pitch

By Scott MacClelland

DON'T BE TOO SURPRISED if John Larry Granger's name appears on the November ballot. With intensity as a criterion, his Santa Cruz County Symphony performance last Sunday at Watsonville's Mello Center suggests the man is running for election to something. Not only has he perfected a folksy extemporaneous speaking style, but he also seems pleased to appear onstage in stumping colors (this time a bright red baseball jacket).

But there's another hint to his future ambitions: his orchestra sounds better than ever. In a word, the performance of the closing work, Hindemith's Symphony Mathis der Maler, was outstanding. Both technically and interpretively, this was of recording quality and will be broadcast Oct. 22 on KUSP-FM (88.9).

Like an Olympic athlete going for gold, Granger has yet again raised his orchestra to a new benchmark of excellence (in the first program after summer break, no less!). The alchemy of such leadership is hard to figure out. The piece is uncommonly complex, full of tricky counterpoint and syncopations. For all that, it is also program music of unique style, a 20th-century German contrapuntal composer's musings on contemporary persecution and holocaust, inspired by 16th-century religious panels painted during a time of post-Reformation persecution and holocaust.

While Granger's personal artistic disciplines are burning brighter than ever, they must also take account of his players' capabilities and limitations and--for him to succeed--bring them to a higher level, smoothly and coherently. He must attend with greater concentration to tempo and dynamics, both of which are in constant flux. He must know how loud loud is, so as not to get there too soon. He must achieve clarity of texture and line, and of harmonic balance so as not to allow chords to invert.

After superb playing in the opening Angelic Concert, and gorgeous wind solos in The Entombment, came the phantasmagorical Temptation of St. Anthony. Here Granger and his musicians revisited Berlioz' Night of a Witch's Sabbath, where even ghostly violin effects warned that sweet melodic seductions are part of the devil's plan.

The final alleluias of the brass choir sounded glorious redemption, punctuating the finest symphonic reading by an orchestra I have heard in the Monterey Bay area in three decades of dedicated listening.

Should this astonishing moment have come as a surprise? A big hint was the program's start, the glitzy colors, rhythms, orchestration and swagger of Bernstein's On the Town. Granger wore this music with the same easy flamboyance as that flaming red jacket (which probably also advertised him as The Great Lover, the first of the three symphonic dances).

A pas de deux on Lonely Town and Times Square Ballet ("New York, New York, it's a wonderful town") with drum set, brass and saxophone made all parties look good, especially Bernstein, whose music has been "covered" by countless less-skilled imitators.

Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto no. 2 has also been infinitely ripped off, its soaring melodies humiliated by words imposed by plagiarists since the middle of the last century. But under the hands of Bay Area veteran artist Diane Hidy, the composer's original ideas once again took flight.

While the orchestra made a good account of itself (though rougher than the other two works), the concerto's first movement found Hidy fighting for dynamic parity. Although the piano is relegated to accompanist when the orchestra takes up the opening theme, it nevertheless deserves to be heard. Out from under that cloud, she established a broadly phrased, poetic interpretation that left no detail unattended to (as often happens with lesser performers).

In the second movement, Hidy took the lead, filling the space with her own circumspect expression. Blossoming up for fireworks from then on, Hidy retreated whenever possible to the melancholy that had dappled the first movement. As the composer alternates minor and major modes, the pianist added her own richness of character, feeling and mood. The result was deeply satisfying.

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From the October 11-18, 2000 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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