By Ted AYALA
Though still about a month away, it seems that winter has finally arrived in Los Angeles. Grey, and briskly cool; there is something about those days that makes one want to wrap themselves in all things warm comforting, and familiar.
So it was a pleasant surprise to discover that the Santa Cecilia Orchestra (SCO)’s music director is not only a superb musician, but also apparently a meteorologist/clairvoyant. The program of last Sunday, Nov. 21 of Mendelssohn, Vieuxtemps, and Brahms was seemingly tailor-made for the crisp, overcast evening that met the SCO’s patrons at Occidental College’s Thorne Hall.
However, let there be no mistaking “familiar” and “comforting” with “dull.” Last Sunday’s concert proved anything but.
Beginning with a lithe and immaculately phrased Hebrides Overture by Felix Mendelssohn, the SCO snapped its audience to attention. Immediately noticeable was the SCO’s rich bass foundation upon which were built carefully layered sonorities ideal for Mendelssohn’s lucid orchestration. SCO music director Sonia Marie de Leon de Vega conjured a thrilling reading of the Mendelssohn. The carefully controlled dynamics – softly singing one moment, surging wildly the next – and very subtly managed fluctuations of tempi were a wonder to listen to.
Principal clarinetist Michael Arnold’s lovely playing was simply perfect; a gentle shaft of sunlight that shone through the clouds of Mendelssohn’s stormy Scottish coast.
Following the Mendelssohn was the Violin Concerto No.5 by Henri Vieuxtemps. Featuring violinist Danielle Belen in the starring role — who was deeply impressive at a Glendale Positive Motions concert last April — I was eager to hear whether she would live up to the memory and the potential of that April recital. I wasn’t disappointed.
Vieuxtemps’s music can often sound tired and even fusty in the hands of the wrong violinist, but Danielle Belen soared straight to Vieuxtemps’ heart and brought this concerto to life. With her laser-like intonation, fiery temperament, imaginative phrasing, and rich sound, the Vieuxtemps concerto sounded not a minute too long – indeed, one wished it had lasted longer. That Danielle Belen was not only able to toss off Vieuxtemps’ brutally taxing demands on the violinist with ease, but was able to make a work that very often sounds like a vapid showpiece into great music was a testament to her extraordinary talent. Danielle Belen is, without a question, the greatest violinist that you’ve never heard. I can honestly say that I would prefer her to many of today’s violinists of world renown. Record companies take notice: if you haven’t yet run to Ms. Belen’s abode and pounded her door in search of a record contract, you better start putting on your running shoes.
Once again, the SCO and de Leon de Vega were superb. They provided a sensitive accompaniment that matched their soloist’s sound perfectly.
Beloved though his symphonies are by audiences, Johannes Brahms’ Symphony No.3 is one that doesn’t make it to the concert hall and recording studio very often. Brahms always had a penchant for challenging his musicians with tricky rhythms and part writing that sound deceptively simple – and never more so did he indulge in this habit than with the Third Symphony. Even such podium giants like Wilhelm Furtwängler and Arturo Toscanini found themselves confounded by the Brahms Third’s clashing of duple and triple meters.
Where her august predecessors stumbled, de Leon de Vega and the SCO blazed through with finely molded playing in this most gruff yet warmest of Brahms symphonies. From the opening F-A-F motto, the SCO sailed with all the sureness of an arrow in flight; its powerful propulsion enhanced by de Leon de Vega’s omission of the first movement exposition repeat. Some of the forward movement thrust lingered in the second movement, which was tellingly sculpted and displayed some enchanting woodwind playing. Especially winning was the subtle dialogue of the clarinet, bassoon, and French horn. Supple and pliant cellos were ravishing in the third movement’s melancholic waltz.
But the final movement was the most impressive of all. Marrying the virile energy of the first movement with the wistful and introspective sound of the middle movements, the SCO did full justice to this symphony. The enigmatic coda – a last look back on youth and life spent and gone – was magnificent. The gentle ebbing away of the closing bars seemed to suggest the words of the poet Czeslaw Milosz: “One after another my former lives were departing – like ships, together with their sorrow.”
In the audience were Dr. William Schubert and his wife Gloria, residents of La Cañada-Flintridge and SCO donors. Speaking to them after the concert, it was hard not to share in their joy over the concert’s success. “Everything … it was amazing. We can’t wait to hear the rest of the [SCO’s] season.”
Nor can I.