Fitting for a program comproed entirely of American music, this concert gathered all kinds of influences together and stirred them up into a big gumbo. It was not quite a melting pot, as the individual sources for the most part remained distinct, but there was a strong sense of hybridity and musical cross-pollination to every piece. In the opener, a Santa Barbara premiere, Chris Brubeck and his father, Dave, paired 22 minutes of gorgeous and varied orchestral writing with more than 100 photographs, most of them by, but some of them of, the great American artist Ansel Adams. The photos were projected on a large screen that hung above the orchestra, and the experiment, which could have fallen flat, actually worked very well. Adams, who was first seen in several portraits as a child and then again as a young man, makes a wonderful kind of hero for the broadly American orchestral music written by the Brubecks.
Although there were elements drawn from the popular idiom in which Dave Brubeck made his name — in particular, trap drums that served as the main source of percussion — the score for Ansel Adams: America never sounded like jazz, even when the oom-pah of the folk vernacular made a momentary appearance. What it did succeed in sounding like was, remarkably, photography, especially in the clever use of contrast, which echoed the light and dark compositions on the screen. Standing on the roof of his elegant wood-paneled station wagon to adjust a giant box camera, Adams incarnated the heroic American of the music’s frontier vision.
After the Adams opening, pianist Terrence Wilson emerged to play George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” an inspired choice and a very satisfying turn in what was overall another excellent program for the S.B. Symphony. “Rhapsody in Blue” has been getting quite a workout lately, as both the New York Philharmonic (with Jean-Yves Thibaudet) and the Los Angeles Philharmonic (with Herbie Hancock) have performed it recently in programs that were widely broadcast. Despite the high standards previously set, the Santa Barbara Symphony sounded great, revealing the expert construction of Gershwin’s masterpiece with flair and the requisite rhythmic precision. Wilson, while lacking the steely technique of a Thibaudet, or the lofty, nearly philosophical phrasing of jazzman Hancock, nevertheless put his own stamp on the piece, offering a bluesy, sinuously syncopated account that recovered Gershwin’s influences very effectively.
After all this first-half excitement, Maestro Nir Kabaretti and his orchestra turned to Charles Ives for the finale, Ives’s Symphony No. 2, which was composed at the turn of the 20th century when Ives was still a relatively young man. Although the Symphony No. 2 remains less well-known than some of Ives’s later work, this excellent rendition amply demonstrated that should not be the case. Combining the traditional craft of such continental precursors as Johannes Brahms with his intimate knowledge of 19th-century American songs and hymns, Ives created something that’s both distinctly of the new world and thoroughly grounded in the old. Moody atmospherics reminiscent of Wagner gave way to the familiar strains of such American classics as “America, the Beautiful.” And, while there was nothing as dense or dissonant as Ives’s later work, the ending, in which a short reference to the bugler’s “Reveille” announced the last abrupt notes, had as much in it of tart modernity as even a Stravinsky soldier could possibly ask.