The Santa Cruz Symphony conjured up an otherworldly experience last weekend with Invocations, a concert featuring the musical sophistication of four guest Metropolitan Opera soloists and Cheryl Anderson’s Cabrillo Symphonic Chorus alongside Daniel Stewart’s illustrious orchestra.
The final program of a brilliant 2018-19 Season opened with Esa-Pekka Salonen’s “Karawane”, a 30-minute piece based on a poem by Hugo Ball, the founder of the Dada movement. In true Dada style, the piece is whimsical and unusual to the point where our level of comfort is inevitably challenged. It begins with hushed whispers from the chorus that gradually form into abstract “words” from the poem (or lines of gibberish like “higo bloisko russula huju”). The effect of the incantations is unsettling, however, that is the fascinating influence of Salonen’s work and the absurd, puzzling nature of Dada material; it is masterfully provocative and often challenges the norm in exciting ways.
The musical innovations and playful rhythms of “Karawane” highlighted the chorus and orchestra’s technical virtuosity and harmonic collaboration. Under Maestro Daniel Stewart’s baton, the singers and musicians evoked the music’s hallucinogenic quality with excellent timing and raw emotional power. The group unfolded the music layer by layer in a solemn, steady way; smoothly intermingling the surreal incantations and melodies, and inviting the listener to settle into a dream-like experience that felt both amusing and hypnotic.
Following this “mischevious” piece of music was Beethoven’s “Mass in C Major”, a more sincere composition that spotlighted a quartet of rising opera stars: Lei Xu, Soprano; Megan Esther Grey, Mezzo Soprano; Seungju Mario Bahg, Tenor; and Patrick Guetti, Bass. Each highly esteemed vocalist is the recipient of distinguished accolades and is garnering attention on international stages. In collaboration with the orchestra and chorus, these four outstanding artists conveyed the serenity and spirituality that Beethoven apparently intended when he composed the work.
An invocation often refers to an appeal to a higher power, and as a collective, the group infused the music with the reverence and devotion that the concert title reflects. In contrast to the zany, nonsensical world evoked in “Karawane”, the ensemble lulled us into a meditative state of being with a tranquil and profound performance of Beethoven’s “Mass”. Stewart led a performance of great poise and precision. Sublime vocals by the four elegant soloists, potent drama from the chorus, and emotional substance from orchestral musicians were all gracefully interwoven in a beautiful musical blend.
Invocations was a stirring farewell to the SCS 2018-19 Concert Season as well as a reminder of what to look forward to in months to come. As a symphonic and operatic conductor, Stewart continues to inspire with his creative choice of scores and performing artists. His announcement of the 2019-20 lineup indicates that historic music and international superstars will be lighting up local stages again soon.