Mendelssohn, Bruch, and Brahms Inaugurate SCO Season


A hearty stew of German Romantic music opened the Santa Cecilia Orchestra’s (SCO) season on Saturday. With rain, and later hail, audibly pelting Occidental College’s Thorne Hall throughout the concert, a generous portion of Teutonic gravy was most welcome that chilly night.

The program, which consisted of music by Felix Mendelssohn, Max Bruch and Johannes Brahms, shined a light on the classical side of German Romanticism. Mendelssohn, whose music expressed the vision of a new era as refracted through the lens of the past, was a key inspiration to both Bruch and Brahms. It was also a particularly inventive stroke to begin the program with a work that displays Mendelssohn’s debt to an earlier composer whom he championed tirelessly: Johann Sebastian Bach. In turn, Mendelssohn was the catalyst for the 19th Century’s Bach revival, which later left a profound imprint on the music of Brahms.

Though once a staple of choral societies, Mendelssohn’s oratorio St. Paul has languished in near obscurity since the mid 20th Century. Not unjustly so, it must be said. It is a score of uneven quality, alternating moments of shining beauty with staid note-spinning. The overture to St. Paul, the selection that opened the program, is a microcosm of the oratorio’s virtues and faults.

It wasn’t an easy job for conductor Sonia Maria de León de Vega and the SCO to keep this music animated. But de León de Vega’s unerring sense of pace and the SCO’s warm strings – sounding richer and weightier since last season – certainly made Mendelssohn’s uncharacteristically bland work easier to take. Impressive were the noble trombones and tuba that colored the opening chorale.

From a somewhat obscure work by a famous composer, the SCO led us next to a somewhat obscure composer whose work is virtually forgotten. The name Max Bruch isn’t heard very often these days, with even his once ubiquitous Violin Concerto No.1 only making very occasional appearances on record and on the concert stage. But if he lacked that last bit of inspiration and style that his contemporary Brahms possessed, he made up for it with a graceful lyricism that won him much favor with the audiences of his day.

His Concerto for Clarinet, Viola and Orchestra is by no means a neglected masterpiece. But it’s a finely wrought work that serves as ample testament to the composer’s musicianship. Though Bruch’s inspiration sometimes flags in the outer movements, the real gem of the work lies in a middle movement of molten beauty that presents Bruch at his lyric best.

Violist Lauren Chipman and clarinetist Michael Arnold – both members of the SCO – were just about the best advocates for this work that Bruch could have ever hoped for. Their playing was flawless and eloquent; self-effacing without being faceless. Arnold especially was a delight, with a dark, chocolaty timbre that fit snugly in this music.

Traversing Brahms’ symphonies in reverse – the SCO began with the Fourth in 2009 – the orchestra arrived at the Second to close the program. The wait was definitely worth it. The care the SCO and de León de Vega must have lavished on this music in rehearsal was clearly audible. Especially telling were the subtle tempo fluctuations, which modulated with seamless beauty.

The first movement flowed effortlessly with a tempo that was closer than usual to the composer’s desired Allegro non troppo. When the songful exposition arrived, it burst with heady inevitability. This was all sunshine and warmth; Brahms at his most genial. Pert, even subtly cheeky, brass brought a winking smile to the first movement’s coda. Ecstatically radiant strings and fruity woodwinds shone in the second and third movements respectively. Sarah Beck’s turn in the scherzo’s oboe solo was playful, yet always suffused with a hint of the melancholy that pervades the music of Brahms.

But melancholy was quickly dispelled in the brilliant finale. Eschewing the breakneck speed one often hears in this movement, de León de Vega opted for a slower tempo that allowed for more grandeur and power, but without ever sacrificing the composer’s “con spirito.” Outstanding trumpet work by Darren Mulder and David Searfoss capped the symphony’s closing bars – and a very memorable inaugural concert.