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Gerald Carpenter: Santa Barbara Symphony Braves Scotland for New Year

The Santa Barbara Symphony will start off the new year with a concert aptly called “Mozart & Mendelssohn” — though, to be inclusively accurate, if unalliterative, it should be called “Mozart & Mendelssohn & Takemitsu.” Doesn’t have the same punch, I guess — unless, like me, you’re a Takemitsu fan.

This watercolor of Felix Mendelssohn by James Warren Childe dates from 1829, the year the composer began his 'Scottish' symphony.
This watercolor of Felix Mendelssohn by James Warren Childe dates from 1829, the year the composer began his “Scottish” symphony.

The concert will play at 8 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday in The Granada Theatre, will be conducted by maestro Nir Kabaretti, and will feature the guest artistry of the benign wizard Glenn Dicterow on violin and the heavenly Cynthia Phelps on viola.

The program includes three works: How Slow the Wind by Toru Takemitsu (1930-96), the Sinfonia Concertante in Eb-Major for Violin and Viola, K. 364 by Wolfgang Mozart (with Phelps and Dicterow as soloists) and the Symphony No. 3 in A-Minor, Opus 56, “Scottish” by Felix Mendelssohn.

This is not so far-flung a program as you might think. How Slow the Wind was commissioned by the Hope Scott Trust for the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and premiered in Glasgow on Nov. 6, 1991. It may be a coincidence that this work starts a concert that ends with this Mendelssohn symphony, but I doubt it. In addition to an interesting complement of winds and strings, there are two percussionists playing, between them, vibraphone, glockenspiel, antique cymbals, tubular bells bells, two cow bells and something that might be a celesta. The result is not cacophony, but an eerie spatial tranquility — ultra-modern, to be sure, but a far cry from the “shock-the-bourgeois-patron” of so many of his contemporaries.

In terms of emotional power, grandeur of design and complexity of musical ideas, the Mozart Sinfonia is worth all his violin concertos put together. It’s Köchel number (364) and year of composition (1779) suggest affinities with the Concerto in Eb-Major for Two Pianos and Orchestra, K. 365 and, indeed, the affinities abound, not least of all the key and the number of soloists.

However, the Sinfonia is by far the stronger, profounder work. Not even in the piano concertos do we find a soloist making a stronger or more assertive entrance than that of the first movement. It is like a grand and dignified bird gliding in for a landing.

Celts and Jews seem always drawn to each other. The progeny of such a cross, biological or cultural, frequently display the highest degree of what is called “hybrid vigor.” Mendelssohn was first drawn to Celtic lands as a result of reading the poems of “Ossian,” which all of Europe fell in love with, believing them translations from the works of an ancient Celtic bard. Most modern scholars, however, now believe the poems are the work of the alleged “translator,” the “enterprising Scot” (Kenneth Clark), James Macpherson.

Whoever wrote them, the poems were important influences on the development of the Romantic Movement — they were Napoleon’s favorite reading, inspired works by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Friedrich Klopstock, and, besides Mendelssohn, were set to music by Franz Schubert and Niels Gade — as well as the Gaelic Revival.

The “Scotch” Symphony is not a “greater” symphony than Mendelssohn’s “Italian” Symphony, except in terms of scale, but it has an epic sweep and power that the composer rarely matched. 

Tickets to the symphony range from $35 to $100. Click here to purchase tickets online, or call The Granada box office at 805.899.2222.

— Gerald Carpenter covers the arts as a Noozhawk contributing writer. He can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). The opinions expressed are his own.

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