The first Santa Barbara Symphony concert of 2013 centered on two truly monumental works—the Sinfonia Concertante for Violin, Viola and Orchestra in E-flat major by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and Symphony No. 3 in A minor (“Scottish”) by Felix Mendelssohn. But these icons of the repertoire, one from the Classical era and the other Romantic, were preceded by what appeared at first to be an odd programming choice. Toru Takemitsu’s How Slow the Wind (1991) is eleven-minute tone poem in one movement that was inspired by three short lines of Emily Dickinson’s poetry that refer to the wind and the sea. Conductor/Director Nir Kabaretti explained that the Santa Barbara Symphony (like many other music organizations world-wide) is honoring the 150th birth anniversary of French composer Claude Debussy throughout the year, and Takemitsu is part of the Great Impressionist’s legacy. The seven-note motif in How Slow the Wind, as Kabaretti demonstrated, is quoted from a theme in Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune, a work played by the Symphony last November.
How Slow the Wind is essentially a dialogue with silence. Expressions swirl out of space and disappear again as from a whirlwind, precipitating suddenly and then vanishing. If standard musical phrases are structured by a formal grammar, then Takemitsu is giving us fragments rather than complete sentences. The pared-down ensemble has no brass, but is strong on percussion with piano, harp, celesta, tubular bells and cowbells, at times striking in a sparse but regular syncopation, a deliberate imitation of Javanese Gamelan (another homage to Debussy). Violins are voiced primarily in high harmonics with stratospheric sustains that seem to create a silvery halo over the activity of the other musicians. However spontaneous and nature-inspired the piece may seem, careful listening reveals Takemitsu’s mastery of orchestration and depth of imagination.
For the Mozart, two guest artists—violinist Glenn Dicterow and violist Cynthia Phelps—joined the Symphony. The Southern California natives are longtime collaborators and both now principal musicians in the New York Philharmonic, where Dicterow is Concertmaster. Mozart sets the soloists off one another in various ways: alternating in dialogue, following in canon form, or soaring in harmonious tandem. The cream of both Allegro and the Andante movements are the climactic cadenzas during which the orchestra falls silent while violin and viola prominently duel. Dicterow and Phelps revealed depths of subtlety and inspiration that only flourish with mature artistry, rifling smoothly through sixteenth-note runs or floating the slow exposed notes aloft in perfectly unified articulation. Concert etiquette be damned—the enthused audience could not refrain from applauding between movements. Kudos go to the orchestra as well, generally for balance against the soloists, but specifically to the oboes and horns whose accents and colors contribute so much to this work’s distinctive character.
A brilliant young Mendelssohn found the seed inspiration of what many consider to be his greatest symphony during an 1829 trip to the Scottish Highlands. Symphony No. 3 is monumental in scope, length and instrumentation, revealing the great German architect of form at the height of his powers. Rich with ideas and involved developments, heavy drama and pastoral dance, the Santa Barbara Symphony gave an outstanding performance under the focused and animated guidance of Maestro Kabaretti. The stormy swells near the conclusion of the Allegro agitato were the perfect foil to the rarified wavelets of the Takemitsu that began the concert. The tight entrances and exits by strings and winds during the Finale were effortless and exciting; all the while Kabaretti waved his arms, smiling.