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The Big Bang

[whitespace] Roberta Joiner Closing Time: Soprano Roberta Joiner lent a memorable fluidity to the Santa Cruz County Symphony's final performance of the season last weekend.

The Santa Cruz County Symphony closes its season with a triumphant bang

By Scott MacClelland

LIKE THE COMET Shoemaker-Levy's spectacular collision with Jupiter, the Santa Cruz County Symphony's finale produced cosmic fireworks. Last Sunday afternoon in Watsonville, maestro John Larry Granger, in what may be recorded as his finest season ever, led the orchestra in a stunning tour through our solar system, courtesy of Gustav Holst's no-less-spectacular masterpiece The Planets.

Holst's point of departure was the belt of asteroids that many astronomers believe represents the remains of an ill-fated (dare I say star-crossed) planet that orbited the sun between Mars and Jupiter. From there, Holst heads toward the sun, with portraits, in order, of Mars, Venus and Mercury. Then, from the same starting point, he heads out to the gaseous giants: Gore, Quayle and ... oops, sorry, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune.

Tour guide Granger did a superb job of directing attention to the features of each, underscoring the details and boldly raising the volume to levels that inspired the orchestra's first harpist to hold her fingers in her ears when she was not engaged with her instrument.

To accommodate the enlarged brass band and low strings, Granger's podium was offset to stage right. From there he sustained a mighty din through most of the militaristic Mars and much of Uranus, another war march, this one based on a motto that seemed to cross Close Encounters of the Third Kind with the chimes of Big Ben.

In fact, attention to a live performance of the popular piece reveals its wealth of themes, melodies and mottoes, a veritable encyclopedia of invented bits that through skillful manipulation embed themselves in the listener's memory. An allusion to the Dies Irae stamps "Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age," while a handsome Edwardian hymn emerges from "Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity."

Often overlooked is the fact that Holst was a first-rate contrapuntal chef who deftly prepared his cuisine for both sit-down and take-out. Everyone left the Mello Center well fed and with a doggy bag of memorable tunes and savory orchestral tricks, like the back-of-bow tapping on the strings at the beginning of "Mars, the Bringer of War," the sparkling metal percussion in "Mercury, the Winged Messenger" and the ethereal women's chorus in the closing moments of "Neptune, the Mystic." Moreover, not a few solos dotted the score, and Granger rightly singled out the soloists during the standing ovation that concluded the afternoon.

The women's voices were part of the larger Cabrillo College Chorus featured in the opening work, Poulenc's 1961 Gloria in G. For this, chorus master Cheryl Anderson took the podium to lead a tidy, if rather tight, reading. Lacking elasticity, Anderson's allegros were driven hard, which gave them a militant quality not truly consistent with Poulenc's stylistic background. This approach probably took into account her choir's capabilities but did not translate well into the rich orchestral score, which wanted more breathing room.

Those moments aside, the slower passages, including parts sung by soloist Roberta Joiner, restored fluidity to the proceedings. Joiner brought a smallish but clear soprano to the often coloratura demands of the composer. Like The Planets, and for its own distinctive melodic voice and pungent harmonies, the work ingratiated itself into memory.

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From the May 5-12, 1999 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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