The Santa Barbara Symphony last weekend presented a spiritual program in honor of Easter and Passover. Nir Kabaretti again exhibited knowledge, thoughtfulness and creativity in the selection of pieces, choosing a connecting theme of music influenced by or composed in support of song. It was a relatively brief concert but rich and satisfying, including little heard works by Paul Ben-Haim, Israel’s foremost composer, and Alexander Zemlinsky, whose work had a profound influence on 20th century film music and is currently enjoying a much-deserved resurgence of interest. Also performed were works by Franz Schubert, Giuseppe Verdi, and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

The conductor spoke with me before the Saturday concert, and reflected on the prominent place music often holds in religious ritual, suggesting that words are not always adequate to express spiritual sentiments. The centerpiece was Schubert’s “Unfinished” Symphony No. 8 in B Minor, a work which, though it owes no direct inspiration to song, was composed by the Romantic master of lieder, and is full of song-like melodies. “To me it is a kind of prayer,” Kabaretti said. He feels that the two movements Schubert finished stand on their own, and he conducted them in a restrained manner which effectively evoked a completed work and emphasized the symphony’s eloquent lyricism.

Preceding the Schubert was the 2nd movement, entitled “Psalm,” (Molto calme e cantabile) of Ben-Haim’s Symphony No. 1, a piece which derives it’s theme from a chant-like Middle Eastern folk song. Composed in 1939-40, it reverberates also with the horrors of war. The strained tranquility of the work set the tone for the concert as a whole, suggesting, perhaps, a subtext acknowledging the struggle between faith and suffering.

The second half of the concert was devoted to works for chorus and orchestra, and the Santa Barbara Choral Society manifested in full glory, their music books reflecting in bird-like flights upon the overhanging plastic sound shell. They milked every drop of operatic drama from Verdi’s “Stabat Mater,” the second of the composer’s “Four Sacred Pieces,” and exhibited readiness to broaden their repertoire with a masterful rendering of Zemlinsky’s difficult “Psalm 23.” Between the Verdi and the Zemlinsky, like calm in the eye of a storm, was the only unwaveringly serene piece of the evening, Mozart’s lovely “Ave Verum Corpus.” Throughout the event the orchestra performed brilliantly, and Kabaretti conducted with passion and panache.

Prior to both performances, accomplished composer and pianist Said Ram³n Araiza gave pre-concert talks, as part of an ongoing collaboration with the SBS that began last year. Araiza conveys a penetrating understanding of music with infectious enthusiasm. For those desiring a deeper experience of future SBS concerts, his talks are not to be missed.


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