[News-Press] Pictures at a symphonic exhibition
By Josef Woodard, News-Press Correspondent
In the continuing saga of the Santa Barbara Symphony’s 60th anniversary season, last weekend at The Granada, the April symphonic showers brought on at least a couple of deviations from norms and expectations. For one, music director Nir Kabaretti was taking the month off, passing the baton to the very fine Hungarian-born guest conductor Gregory Vajda. He presided sturdily over a program all about “seasons” — Vivaldi’s evergreen crowd-pleaser “The Four Seasons” and Alexander Glazunov’s palatably pictorial lark, “The Seasons,” also a four-part calendar soundtrack.
On the subject of pictorialism in the concert hall, the larger quirk of this stop on the concert program calendar was the literal “action painting” sideshow. During the Glazunov piece, veteran Hollywood scenic and matte painter Jett Green took on the brave, stunt-like task of rapidly creating four separate loose, broad-stroked landscape paintings, live and onstage, under duress and a strict deadline (or deadlines — four of them within an hour’s time).
As we watched her in the painting act, with her work shot on camera and looming large on a screen over the orchestra, her real time brushwork and hand gestures made a correlation with Mr. Vajda’s conducting. The point was also not lost on us that the rhythmic and harmonic elements of the music found a cross-media partner in the rhythm and color harmonies of her respective artwork.
In the end, it was a novel idea whose time may or may not have come. The Jury’s still out. Symphony orchestras sometimes embark on fresh and gamely experimental ideas, or gimmicks, in the ongoing attempt to make the orchestral concert experience more accessible and novel. But, however intriguing this event might have been, as a kind of easy-going and family-friendly performance art concept, the visual distraction did the music no favors. We think it was a good musical performance, but can’t be sure, as our attentions were strongly divided.
Meanwhile, back in the blessed, timeless music-for-music’s-sake camp, the real musical centerpiece of this program came before intermission, on the theme of one of Vivaldi’s greatest hits. This is a big season for “The Four Seasons.” Last weekend, we got a stripped-down, chamber music-sized component of the Santa Barbara Symphony’s sharp reading, with the dynamic young virtuoso violinist Nigel Armstrong in the soloist spotlight. Next week, we’ll get a period instrument version by the esteemed Handel and Haydn Society of Boston, coming soon to UCSB Campbell Hall.
In this modern-instrument, leaner, meaner symphony orchestra version, all strings but for harpsichord, the Santa Barbara Symphony exerted a bold, precise and persuasive presence, on a thematic turf whose familiarity makes our ears more discerning than usual. Mr. Vajda kept a firm, flexible hand on specifics and the larger arcing design of this necessarily episodic work, twelve movements in all, and hinting at the progression of time’s and season’s passings.
True to the essence of the piece and the more ensemble-oriented aesthetics of Baroque “concerto” writing, the solo violin part weaves in and out of the ensemble fabric throughout, stepping out heroically at points, and folding into the group think elsewhere. In both situations, Mr. Armstrong proved an impressive and sensitive force to reckon with.
Ultimately, Vivaldi’s beloved programmatic classic is a jubilant and life-affirming statement, with some slower movements flecked with elegant melancholy and potential mortality reminders which is inevitably tied to the idea of seasons ever in transit. Call these “memento mori” moments, to borrow a phrase from the artworld, an across-the-medium-aisle which seems entirely fitting under the circumstances. Chalk up another one for the self-reliant power of orchestra music done right.