As a warm-spirited sendoff to its 65th anniversary season, the Santa Barbara Symphony eased into The Granada Theatre last weekend, with a program framed by two 19th-century pieces of the musical comfy chair variety. Maestro Nir Kabaretti and his polished orchestra gave admirable readings of Tchaikovsky’s Overture-Fantasy, with its familiar croon of a melodic theme as centerpiece to open, and they closed with the affirmative plushness of Dvorak’s Symphony No. 8. Those concert bookends proved to be well and good, lined with emotive chestnuts.
But the real source of intrigue, not to mention a point of in-house pride, arrived in the concert’s midsection. This was the night that the late, great composer Elmer Bernstein’s enthralling “Songs of Love and Loathing” was exhumed, 30 years after the world premiere of the song cycle, wisely commissioned by the SBS during conductor Varujan Kojian’s tenure.
With its seven songs set to texts by women poets of pre-19th-century vintage and luminously sung by mezzo-soprano Leann Sandel-Pantaleo, “Songs” has more than withstood the test of time, and it even resonates with the current gender political atmosphere. One can also safely say this orchestra’s overall caliber, honed under Kabaretti’s guidance, is higher than it was 30 years ago.
Best known as one of Hollywood’s greatest film composers but one who kept his hand in “concert music,” Bernstein drew on a flexible and “accessible” (as a virtue, not a demerit) musical language for this score. Echoes of Benjamin Britten mix with elements of Sondheim and even Bernstein’s own filmic music flair. The texts/treatments range from a raucous ancient Moroccan poem to the lyricism of a poem by 17th-century English writer Anne Bradstreet. “Songs” sings on many levels.
Kabaretti suggested that he would like to finally make a commercial recording of this worthy, Santa Barbara–born piece. We second that emotion.