“91 years young” seems an entirely appropriate way to describe the ongoing love affair between Santa Barbara’s Community Arts Music Association and its near relation, the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Twin enterprises of the William Andrews Clarks, Junior of Los Angeles and Senior of Santa Barbara, CAMA and the LA Phil have been through a lot together–wars, earthquakes, renovations, and even the acoustics at the Arlington–yet the joy that brought them together in the first place seems as fresh as the air must have been on that first train ride north back in March 1920. On Saturday, the Dudamel-deprived Philharmonic players showed no signs of a fall off in morale as they responded to the baton of Bramwell Tovey, the maestro who often takes charge when the Phil plays its annual outdoor concerts at the Hollywood Bowl. In fact, Tovey made an inspired leader for the program, which combined the marvelous (and marvelously familiar) Brahms Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat Minor, Op. 83 with a symphony by British composer Ralph Vaughan Williams that had never been heard here before, his Symphony No. 2, “A London Symphony.”
Tovey made a charming and heartfelt introduction to the Vaughan Williams, recalling both the London of his youth (he was born and raised there) and the poetry of British Romantic urbanists William Wordsworth (“Upon Westminster Bridge”) and William Blake (“London” from his Songs of Experience). That transition covers a lot of ground, from Wordsworth’s “mighty heart… lying still,” the city of which it can be said “Earth has not anything to show more fair” to Blake’s “harlot’s curse” that “blights with plagues the marriage-hearse,” but so does London, and so does the composer, in this rambling, episodic, and darkly sophisticated musical cityscape. The chimes of Big Ben are heard in passing, as are the cries of street merchants, the airs of balladeers, and the bustle of crowded streets. While the overall effect may lack the unity and force of the best German music, this ambitious work by a composer from what was at the time a somewhat marginalized musical culture has much more than just curiosity value, and Tovey and the Philharmonic played it superbly.
After the interval it was Andre Watts and the Philharmonic doing what they do best, which is bringing the monuments of the mainstream repertoire alive and kicking into the 21st century. An exquisite cello solo underscored Watts’ keyboard mastery, and sent scores of “bravos” echoing through the Granada during the extended standing ovation.