Santa Barbara Symphony

Bartók, Carrara, Handel, Gabrieli

This outstanding concert by the Santa Barbara Symphony demonstrated the organization’s international reach and commitment to developing new music. It also displayed the realistic, aspirational side of modernism as practiced by the Hungarian composer Béla Bartók, and how it has been reinterpreted by the young Italian Christian Carrara. Within the context of the composer’s redemptive vision for music, which he felt was capable of expressing the “highest emotions” in the service of a “great reality,” Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra (1943), which occupied the second half of this program, represents a kind of personal microcosm, of that concept, as the commission came at a time when Bartók work was neglected, and his completion of it resulted in a revival of interest in his music.

The opening piece, the Canzoni Septimi Toni No. 2 for Brass (1597) of Giovanni Gabrieli, brought two brass quartets to the far left and right edges of the stage to create a dramatically stereophonic first impression of the evening’s theme of musical dialogue. The orchestra followed this short and expressive fanfare with the Suite No. 2 in D Major from George Frideric Handel’s Water Music. The orchestra took full advantage of Handel’s gift for exuberant musical pageantry, and the resulting festive atmosphere underscored maestro Nir Kabaretti’s fanciful claim in his opening remarks to welcome a number of distinguished Italian guests that “all roads lead to Santa Barbara.”

Christian Carrara’s Machpelah: Dialogue for Violin, Cello, and Orchestra (2015) brought soloists Francesca Dego and Robert DeMaine on stage for a fascinating and unpredictable journey through the Mediterranean classical tradition. Thoroughly modern without ever becoming dull or ugly, the piece reflected Carrara’s spiritual leanings in a structure that was by turns gentle and debonair. His stated ambition to “celebrate the eternity of love” in music was accomplished with gusto, and, in addition to the expected influences of Jewish and Arab music, I caught echoes of such popular American composers as Leonard Bernstein and John Williams.

The performance of Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra was one of the best single things I have heard the Santa Barbara Symphony play. The ricocheting “concertant” sequences in the middle movements were razor sharp, and the gorgeous resolutions of the Finale were powerful and suitably majestic. Bartók’s “last judgment,” for all its complex interplay and rhythmic innovation, is fundamentally one of salvation, and the audience for this performance left the Granada with a vision of a higher love.

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