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Big Finish

ae symphThe Santa Cruz Symphony season finale showcases Mozart and Bernstein

The 2014 Santa Cruz County Symphony season comes to a shimmering climax this weekend with two masterworks for chorus and orchestra. Playing spiritual counterpoint with each other’s text and traditions are Leonard Bernstein’s “Chichester Psalms” and Mozart’s “Requiem in D Minor.” Written 200 years apart, Bernstein’s exuberant choral meditation upon the Psalms of David and Mozart’s Baroque funeral mass articulates key moments of mortality. These epic works for chorus and symphony are joined on the program by “Ave Verum Corpus,” Mozart’s exquisite accompaniment for an ancient hymnal prayer. The entire program overflows with musical richness, exploring Judeo-Christian motifs and choral styles.

Under the baton of charismatic young music director Daniel Stewart, the Santa Cruz County Symphony—joined by the Cabrillo Symphonic Chorus—will bring these dynamic masterpieces to life this weekend at the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium and the Mello Center for the Performing Arts.

The final concert of Maestro Stewart’s debut season in Santa Cruz will begin with the ethereal “Ave Verum Corpus” for strings and voices and “Chichester Psalms,” a robust setting of Old Testament psalms commissioned for Bernstein by the dean of Chichester Cathedral in 1965.

The “Psalms”—three movements for choir, harp and boy soloist—offer a bravura display of Bernstein’s mature symphonic gifts. Anyone familiar with the composer’s “West Side Story” will recognize the exuberant key signature and dizzying tempo complexities, syncopations that make for a dazzling listening—and performing—experience. Much of Bernstein’s pacing is brisk, yet muscular. The piece includes notoriously challenging passages, especially for male voices. The Cabrillo Symphonic Chorus is up to these sorts of challenges, thanks to arduous rehearsal under the expert leadership of director Cheryl Anderson, whose choral ensembles are renowned throughout the United States and Europe. This powerful choral presence will join with the symphony orchestra to produce an unforgettable denouement for maestro Stewart’s inaugural season.

Mozart’s “Requiem” is one of the true gems of the classical repertoire. The work will certainly provide a showcase for Stewart’s command of orchestral color and vocal nuance, not to mention his uncanny fluency with fingertips, eyebrows, and shoulders to achieve breathtaking musical articulation. In the thundering passages of the “Dies Irae,” performers and audiences can almost feel the fires of hell threatening those whose lives have been misspent. In its “Agnus Dei,” every plea for mercy whispered in a desperate hour is memorialized with ethereal compassion. From furiously compelling strings to triumphal trumpet preludes, this work of genius is one of the handful of required notches in any musician’s metaphorical performance belt.

The work is also shrouded in colorful folklore. Mozart was suffering from a mysterious illness when dire financial straits forced him to accept the requiem commission. Working feverishly to complete the intricate movements for chorus, quartet, and soloists, Mozart rehearsed with a trio of friends, singing some of the vocal parts and instrumental flourishes himself, even while consumed by illness. From his bed, the composer sketched out all the motifs and flourishes that he could until death took him.

Completed from Mozart’s notes by his assistant Süssmayr, the magnificent tapestry of fugues, choral thunder, and entreating counterpoint proved to be its creator’s own memorial. Profoundly expressive, the music propels and deepens the text to the point of transcendence intended by a requiem mass. Soloists from the Metropolitan Opera—soprano Lei Xu, mezzo Reneé Tatum, tenor Mario Chang and baritone Ryan Speedo Green—will join maestro Stewart, orchestra and chorus in what should prove an unforgettable climax to the season. 

The Santa Cruz County Symphony’s ‘Renewal’ will be performed at 8 p.m. on Saturday, May 17 at the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium, and 2 p.m. on Sunday, May 18 at the Mello Center in Watsonville. Free pre-concert talks take place at 7 p.m. on Saturday. in the Civic Auditorium, and 1 p.m. on Sunday at the Watsonville Mello Center. $22-$67, 420-5260.

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