A String of ‘Closers’ Opens Cal Phil Season

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It may be less of a certainty at your typical symphony concert these days, but at a summer concert, where the mood is often casual, a big, loud, flashy close to a program is a must.

Summon the brass, percussion and hordes of strings, toss in a chorus, bells, maybe a cannon or two, and a drawn-out coda wringing the last bit of juice before the inevitable tonic close. Delighted and grateful, the audience heads back home and takes to the freeways with smiles on their faces.

If the above is the aftermath of your average summer concert, the California Philharmonic audience heading back to their homes from Santa Anita on Saturday night may have been grasping for some much-needed sedatives. It was a high-octane concert. Big? Check. Loud? Check. Flashy? Double check.

Orff’s “Carmina Burana” is usually one of those works that orchestras place at the end of their concerts. After being flattened by the sheer massiveness of the thing, what could possibly follow? Plenty, according to the Cal Phil Orchestra music director Victor Vener.

Excerpts from the rowdy bacchanalia for chorus and orchestra opened the concert on Saturday night. It was an imposing start for a concert that risked consigning its remainder to a pallid anti-climax. But Vener sanded off of the edges of Orff’s spiky, sub-Stravinskiana. Instead, the music was redolent of Mahler’s “Symphony No. 8,” of Franz Schmidt’s “The Book of the Seven Seals,” of the grand choruses from Wagner’s “Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg,” and even Handel. The hard realities of the 20th century seemed to dissolve; in its place only a longing, maybe even hopeful, glance back at the imperialist braggadocio that characterized much of the cultural output from the apex of Wilhelmenian Germany. Considering when the work was composed – in mid 1930s Germany during the ascendancy of Nazism – that possibility may not be so remote.

The music of John Williams also looks back to this particular period, though he defangs his influences of the sometimes troubling political connotations they have since accrued. But it is brilliant, flashy, clearly defined, easy to follow. It also makes an apt counterweight to the grandiloquence of Orff.

Some of the most memorable of his film scores, including excerpts from
“E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial,” “Jurassic Park,” and “Star Wars” dotted the program. Yet Williams is also able to dial back the grandiosity when required, a quality that is at the forefront to his scores for “Schindler’s List” and “Amistad,” excerpts from which were also included on the program.

The excerpt from “Amistad” brought to the stage not only the California Philharmonic Chorus along with the orchestra, but the vocals of Sarah Culberson who was one of the concert’s guest soloists. Performing the “Dry Your Tears, Africa” number from the score, both soloist and chorus underlined the solemnity of the music, with Culberson making a commanding impression.

Less successful was the excerpt from “Schindler’s List,” which was subjected to a curious arrangement by Maxwell Karmazyn for violin, cello and orchestra. “Curious” in that it managed to sound both obtrusive and soporific. The arrangement as such consisted mostly of appending a counter-melody to the “Schindler’s List” theme, though it opened with a cadenza that recalled with snatches of the Dvorak’s “Cello Concerto” and Tchaikovsky’s “Violin Concerto” with seemingly no purpose being there other than that they could.

Maxwell and his father, Dennis, who serves as the orchestra’s principal cellist, segued from there into the finale of the Brahms “Double Concerto,” its opening bars swaying about in rickety fashion. It took about a minute for both soloists and orchestra to settle into the piece, though a sense of rhythmic unease was never quite dispelled.

But whatever problems there were with the Brahms were blown to the skies in the fireworks finish that closed with – what else? –  Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture.

The Tchaikovsky was also presented in an arrangement, this time appending a chorus along with the orchestra. It was flamboyant, over-the-top, fun, with the orchestra and Vener clearly relishing the wonderful racket they left in their wake.

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