The month of May sprouts season finale concerts like wildflowers. These spring beauties of the concert hall dazzle with fresh colors, only for the ear rather than the eye. At the Granada Theatre on May 14-15, Maestro Nir Kabaretti and the Santa Barbara Symphony will conclude their season by welcoming the Santa Barbara debut of Spanish guitarist Pablo Sáinz Villegas. Villegas will play the Concerto for Guitar and Orchestra of former Hope Ranch resident Elmer Bernstein, and while the composer will always be best known for his many prize-winning film scores, this guitar concerto, which he wrote while he lived here, is fast becoming an international favorite. It may be the most popular classical composition ever written in Santa Barbara, and it has become a hit for Villegas, who has been receiving standing ovations from Cincinnati to Edmonton as he crosses North America performing it with several major symphony orchestras. Meanwhile over at the Lobero Theatre on Tuesday, May 17, the Santa Barbara Chamber Orchestra brings back a familiar guest of theirs, the pianist Alessio Bax, for Beethoven’s majestic Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat Major, Op. 73, “Emperor.”
From a programming perspective, these finale concerts require striking a balance between the grand gesture of summing up and the perhaps subtler task of leaving the audience feeling curious and wanting more. In different ways, both these choices succeed in hitting that mark. The Santa Barbara Symphony will emphasize our city’s deep connection to the future of music by featuring a talented young performer in Villegas and a homegrown piece by “our” Bernstein that’s on its way to achieving classic canonical status. Maestro Heiichiro Ohyama at the Santa Barbara Chamber Orchestra, on the other hand, will be foregrounding his penchant for developing relationships with individual musicians through multiple engagements over time, as he, the orchestra, and Bax take another step in a journey that began with Mozart and Brahms and is now reaching one of the summits of the repertoire with the last concerto Beethoven composed.
When I spoke with Villegas last week, he said that he “couldn’t think of a better place to be playing Elmer Bernstein’s concerto.” “It’s a very romantic opening,” said the musician of the first movement, “Guitar.” “It starts with six open strings, and I believe he called it ‘Guitar’ because he wrote it as a way to explore the instrument.” In the second movement, “Reflections,” the piece becomes more lyrical. And in the third, “Celebration,” the time signature shifts to 6/8, and the two themes come together in a kind of dance. Villegas expressed great respect for the legendary guitarist for whom the concerto was written, Christopher Parkening, but he brings his own style to the piece along with a confidence that is the product of years of training. “First you must develop the technique,” he said. “I spent three years with my teacher in Spain just to achieve the kind of sound projection necessary for me to play this effectively without amplification in front of an orchestra in a large hall.” “From there,” he added, “it’s another step to achieve true musicality, and at the end there’s the ultimate goal, which is to communicate your passion and to connect with the audience on an emotional level.”
As for Bax, he said that choosing his favorite among the five Beethoven concertos for piano and orchestra would be “like a parent having to pick a favorite child — you just can’t do it.” He added that the Concerto No. 5 “is called the Emperor for a reason. It’s very big and celebratory, and from a compositional standpoint, it is wonderfully complete.” Bax praised maestro Ohyama for being a great listener, and for relating to his players as a master musician among equals. The chamber orchestra version of the concerto is “in many ways ideal,” he said, because “the smaller and more involved the various musical voices are, the better.”
The Santa Barbara Symphony program also includes Bruckner’s Symphony No. 4. The Santa Barbara Chamber Orchestra will pair the Beethoven with Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 5. With season finales like these, let a thousand musical flowers bloom.
The Santa Barbara Symphony will perform at the Granada Theatre Saturday-Sunday, May 14-15. For tickets and information, visit thesymphony.org or call the Granada box office at (805) 899-2222. The Santa Barbara Chamber Orchestra will perform at the Lobero Theatre on Tuesday, May 17. For tickets and information, visit sbco.org or call the Lobero box office at (805) 963-0761.