DOWNEY – “Good concert etiquette is not to applaud after the second movement of Oscar’s Concerto, no matter how much you want to,” said Lars Clutterham as he interviewed David Van Maele, the evening’s virtuoso clarinetist. “The second movement is slow and melodic, and you want to let the poetry of it sink in.”
Before the program began, in the pre-concert remarks, Lars interviewed composer Oscar Navarro, who flew in from Spain for the North American première of his Third Concerto for B Flat and E Flat Clarinet. Lars is a Downey composer himself and audiences will hear his new piece, “Arc of My Life,” at the Jan. 19 concert.
“This is the Downey Symphony’s 60th year,” said Don Marshall, president of the Downey Symphonic Society, as he welcomed the audience. “And sixty years ago something else happened: the Dodgers came to town. Right now they’re up by one run in the seventh game of the playoffs.”
Don had another first to announce: Congresswoman Lucille Roybal-Allard came on stage to congratulate and thank the Symphonic Society for their program which contributes to National Hispanic Heritage Week. “This proclamation shows that I have put this Downey achievement into the Congressional Record,” the congresswoman said.
State Senator Vanessa Delgado also presented an illuminated proclamation congratulating the Symphonic group on its sixtieth year. Mayor Sean Ashton, a staunch supporter of the Symphony and of the arts, presented President Don with a citation from the City Council recognizing the Downey Symphonic society for its 60 years of providing excellence in music for Downey. Josh Bell, the most recent baton winner, received a plaque for his contribution.
Even before the audience began filling the auditorium, early-arriving patrons enjoyed the art show in the lobby. Board Vice President Carol Kearns and husband Frank, a poet and publisher of the boutique Los Nietos Press, checked out the oils and pastels and water colors in the show, which was curated by Andrew Hernandez of the Downey Arts Coalition. Javier Herrera’s depicted the evening’s theme of Viva el Arte with a field worker harvesting sugar cane with a machete. Lindsay Yost and Debbie Davidsohn also showed.
The Ugandan artist Emmanuel Lugano who also showed at Glennfest, was the art coalition’s featured artist and he had a corridor of his paintings on the patio. One of his personal favorites is a giclée “Broadway” ballet scene, all graceful shapes and flowing colors.
No show is complete without a work by Carolina Estrada-del Toro and she had two on display, as well as a painting by husband Jorge. No ceramic this time. Carolina will curate the art show this weekend for Downey’s Dia de los Muertos.
“This will be my second Bolero with Sharon conducting,” said Andrew Wahlquist, founder of the Downey Arts Coalition. “The first was in 2011.” Andrew’s wife, actress Lana Joy, introduced the artists from the stage, and they stood so we could recognize them. They mostly were wearing red, while Lana was splendid in a long flowered gown.
Spotted before the music began were Anna and Harold Tseklenis, talking with Ryan Keene and Tom Hutchinson, all Rotarians. Kiwanian Larry Lewis, a former president of the Symphonic Society, attended with wife Marge, long-time Assistance League member.
Board members Mary Stevens and JoAnne Gronley held forth in the lobby, distributing the evening’s program and also pencils for the audience survey to be found interleaved in the program. It’s important for the Board’s Marketing Committee to know how they can reach a wider audience.
While the stage was still empty, one noticed that the percussion section held some unusual instruments. There turned out to be six percussionists, one who had three tympani plus two other large drums to manage. There was a xylophone, and two keyboard marimbas (the marimba is the national instrument of Guatemala), which kept one more percussionist busy. Plus hanging chimes, bongos, a cymbal and a gong.
Oscar likes his percussive sounds: any instrument that makes a sound when it is hit, shaken, or scraped is percussion. A harp completed the section, but the players also played the occasional castanets, clackers and other unexpected instruments.
Off-stage voice Mark Keller, just after asking the audience to check the nearest exit, and unwrap those candies now, not later, then announced, “The Dodgers are up by one run and they have the bases loaded.” It was time for the concert to begin.
Sharon Lavery came out and conducted the National Anthem which sounded like cannon and fireworks, with the heavy artillery in the percussion. Oscar Navarro’s Downey Overture, by now an international favorite, displayed a gorgeous combination of Latin tempos and L.A. traffic.
Oscar studied music at USC and then worked here for a year, arranging and composing for films. At the conclusion of the piece, Maestro Sharon, who has conducted it at Carnegie Hall, held out her hands toward the audience where the composer was sitting, and Oscar rose and blew kisses to her and the orchestra, then turned to bow to the applauding audience.
Cuban composer Ernesto Lecuona’s Suite Andalucia had lively and lovely melodies, and ended by gliding into the fiery Malagueña. Conductor Sharon surprised us by announcing a Cuban encore, the widely beloved freedom song by Jose Marti, Guantanamera. The audience received it enthusiastically.
The big piece of the evening was Navarro’s Clarinet Concerto #3, for both the standard-range B Flat instrument, and also the much rarely played E Flat one, which is in a higher register with a clear piercing quality. Belgian soloist David van Maele displayed his dexterity, alternating gracefully between the two.
Navarro wrote the piece specifically for Van Maele and he knew what a difficult task he was setting for his friend. The labor deserves the rich rewards. The first movement began with a tempest of tympani booms, and then the clarinet appears almost bird-like and quick, with showy cadenzas and a shower of light in its wings.
Soloists appreciate playing for conductor Sharon because she is always aware of their movements, and ready to turn them over to the audience in the difficult and showy passages, of which this Concerto had plenty. The entire orchestra became involved, louder and softer and louder again.
The music glides into the Second Movement, dedicated to the son the clarinetist lost when he was 6. “I am happy when I play this,” David said, “because I see Mattiece and I am with him again.”
The melody becomes almost a lullaby and at the moments when the orchestra took the development of the theme, David stood, head bowed, and waited. The high pitch and clarity of the E flat clarinet lifts the orchestra to almost a heavenly plane, as the movement ends on a high note and then silence.
The moment was held without interruption, and then the lively, quick and complex Third Movement began. The E flat instrument is brilliant and edgy, and the piece ends with the brass leading the ensemble in a triumphant statement, flutes valiantly striving to match the clarinet, strings soaring.
The audience gave the piece and the performer a standing ovation, and standing O’s are difficult to get in Downey – and a curtain call. Shouts of “bravo” were heard as composer Oscar Navarro came up to the stage to embrace his good friend David the clarinet player, and to hug the conductor, whom he has known since his USC days, where Sharon is a professor at the Thornton School of Music.
To send the audience into the intermission happy, Mark Keller’s voice announced, “You can go out knowing that the Dodgers won.” That put them into the World Series. Later Mark confessed, “If they had lost, I never would have said anything at all.”
The buzz on the patio at intermission confirmed the success of the new composition. Bernice Mancebo Stumps, with Roy and Barbara Briley Beard, praised the performance, as did Nancy Ramage and Ruth Hillecke, board secretary. Greg Welch, president of the Rotary Club of Downey was spotted, with Adam from Senator Delgado’s office.
We missed Barbara Risher Welch, Greg’s wife and a past District Governor of Rotary. Also seen were Dr. Jose Torreblanca and wife Carmen, whose support helped bring Osar and David to the concert.
Dorothy Pemberton looked snappy in black to match the black sling holding her right arm immobile after her recent shoulder surgery. Dorothy now heads PTA HELPs, a food pantry for needy families, and her other arm was scratched, having been mauled by her own cat Cosmo when she tried to rescue it at midnight from neighbor dogs. Never a dull moment with Dorothy.
Frank Kearns commented that he had met David during rehearsals. “Great performers are transformed when playing,” Frank said. It’s like what Allen Ginsberg said about meeting Bob Dylan in his early electric days at a Newport Folk festival when Dylan performed his first electric concert.
For the second part of the program, Alberto Ginastera’s Estancia had Conductor Sharon practically dancing on the platform to the Argentine rhythms. And then the 17-minute show piece of the evening, Maurice Ravel’s “Bolero” began, innocently enough, with just a flute carrying the melody and a single snare drum tapping a quiet beat.
The cellos and basses pluck their strings, as does the harp, signaled by delicate finger gestures from the hand of the conductor. The shadows and tension grow deeper as more instruments, a saxophone, then the brasses and woodwinds, join in. The bolero is a dance rhythm, and the audience unconsciously nods and begins to sway, tapping their fingers or toes in time to the beat.
Still the violins and basses hold off and pluck their strings, the players cradling their instruments like a ukelele. Oboes and bassoons take up the insistent melody, and the uninterrupted plucking and tapping became more demanding, as Sharon’s arm movements and shoulders grow heavier.
Cellos held back, as do the big drums until at last the suspense is broken and the full orchestra, strings leading, takes up the melodic theme and everything rises to a crashing crescendo with tympani, bass drum, cymbal, gong and a high piercing E flat clarinet wildly changing key in the last few phrases until, with a flourish of the baton, it is over. The audience applause was deafening.
At the champagne reception on the patio afterward, to which all the audience was invited, artist and host of the Green Salon Roy Shabla commented how “the Bolero is so familiar, no one takes it seriously. Until tonight, with Sharon’s interpretation.” Bill Hare, Treasurer of the Symphonic Society Board, allowed as how the evening was a success.
What a gift to Downey, great classical symphonic music presented by a fine regional orchestra, a hard-working Board and Guild helped by ticket sales, memberships, and donations and grants. The other side of the effort is the comprehensive Music in the Schools Outreach Program, aided by the Downey Unified School District, the City of Downey and Kiwanis Foundation. But tonight was the night for the orchestra to shine, through the works of great composers like Ravel and Oscar Navarro.
Tonight it was all about the music, an emotional evening. It’s not a bad thing for the 60-year old Downey Symphony to be to be linked with the Dodgers. The Dodger might say the same thing about Downey.