Of birthdays and cello tones : Last weekend's Santa Barbara Symphony program, led by guest conductor Mark Russell Smith, focused on significant composer birthdays — Robert Schumann's 200th and Samuel Barber's 100th

03.23.10
Joshua Roman
Santa Barbara News-Press

By Josef Woodard

As a species, we humans love drama and backstories, in the higher cultural climes of classical music as well as in the more mundane quarters of pop and mass culture. We listen to later Beethoven influenced by knowledge of his deafness and mental angst and anguish, and attach preconceptions to Mozart's music based on what we know — thanks partly to the qualified information imparted by the film "Amadeus."

And, best intentions notwithstanding, we listen to great German romantic composer Robert Schumann's music, whose Second Symphony was expertly played by the Santa Barbara Symphony over the weekend, with particular ears. We harbor awareness of his inner turmoil and demons, spousal insecurity — as husband to piano celebrity Clara Schumann, nee Wieck —and his asylum-bound fate.

Such knowledge can't help but affect our listening experience in a piece such as the Second Symphony, written in the mid-1840s, the beginning of the composer's unraveling. We detect imagined causes-and-effects of mental struggle on art — the irritating sand grains producing a pearl. In the fine and measured performance here, the symphony emerged as a troubled but ultimately triumphant opus, through the wily scherzo, pensive adagio and demon-conquering finale.

As guest conductor Mark Russell Smith explained to The Granada crowd on Sunday afternoon, this symphony programmed had twin points of focus. Significant composer birthdays were involved, between Schumann's 200th birthday and Samuel Barber's 100th, and for the guest soloist feature of the program, the cello took center stage, in not one, but two spotlight works, by celebrated living composer Osvaldo Golijov and warhorse-man Tchaikovsky.

Cellist Joshua Roman, all of 26 and well on his way in the music world, has a local connection in having gone to the Music Academy of the West for a summer, before becoming principle cellist for the Seattle Symphony for a couple of years. Now a New Yorker, his soloist life is in full swing, and he has a rare blend of sensitivity and bravura in his favor.

For old school's sake, Mr. Roman stirred up the requisite blend of attributes in tackling Tchaikovsky's Variations on a Rococo Theme, a pleasant enough showpiece that makes up in flash and musical comfort food for what it lacks in substance.

But the real dazzler of the show was his reading of two linked cello pieces by Mr. Golijov, under the title "Ausencia" for Cello and Orchestra, originally written for Yo-Yo Ma. Mr. Golijov, one of the most prized American composers of the day, pays tribute to musical figures from his roots growing up in Argentina, between legendary tango singer Carlos Gardel and "Nuevo tango" great Astor Piazzolla.

Gardel is the subject of the supple and "singing" solo cello piece "Omaramor," while essences of Piazzolla's sophisticated tango variations weave into the elaborate and lovely mix of the orchestra-fortified "Death of the Angels." On that piece, Mr. Roman's alternately longing and proud energies held forth, in all the right ways.

Interestingly enough, the concerted Argentinean flavors of Mr. Golijov's music put us in mind of the Santa Barbara Symphony's prior music director, Gisele Ben-Dor. She did much to balance out the lack of attention to classical music sounds from Latin America.

Starting out the program on a rueful note, the Symphony did right by Barber's Adagio for Strings, a genuine classical American classic. Barber's best-known piece comes with some cultural baggage and past associations. The profound lament of a piece has found its way into films, including a prominent thematic use in Oliver Stone's Vietnam war film "Platoon," and became an unofficial signature requiem in the sad, stunned wake of the 9/11 tragedy.

Still, past links aside, the music soars in a special and ever-fresh way in the context of a live performance, in the hands of a good orchestra — which we have in our midst. Mr. Smith nimbly guided the orchestra through the emotive but delicate structure of the piece, in an artful, slow build to that upper register climax, then lapsing into the doleful, low concluding melody statement.

Overall, Barber's Adagio is a rapturous rumination, unique in the repertoire despite our live-in familiarity with the music. It appealed to our senses and sentiments, on a 2010 Sunday afternoon in The Granada, as much as any other time and place. That's a sure sign of a masterpiece.