Courtesy of the Santa Barbara Symphony

Under the baton of their very own music and artistic director, Nir Kabaretti, the Santa Barbara Symphony presented “Mahler Meets Klezmer: Titans of Sound” on April 20. In a concert one could only describe as simply beautiful, the clarity in the artistic vision and its execution gave the sprawling program a concise unity that classical performances often find just beyond their grasp.

Missing from their last performance, on March 16, was unity. With a guest conductor and a diasporic program of classic Hollywood that showed the symphony in a subservient role to the moving picture above, the night was unfulfilling, leaving a continued craving for grandeur and excitement. 

The caliber of musicians was as high as ever, but the pieces performed and their interpretation by maestro Kabaretti led to a fullness of sound with a distinct point of view, one lacking from their March performance. With a sophisticated transparency of sound throughout the entire night, this point of view shined brightly, like the stage lights the orchestra performed under. 

Despite performing top hits of classical repertoire, the symphony made the music feel alive and shockingly new. It made clear the ability of classical music to connect with audiences hundreds of years removed from the original composition date and the power of music. From Mahler’s titanic Symphony No. 1 to a classic Mozart overture to the contemporary Concerto for Klezmer Clarinet (composed by Wlad Marhulets and performed by David Krakauer), the players weaved between the classic and contemporary, yet stayed grounded in each individual selection.

Themes and melodies evolved and flowed naturally throughout the Granada Theatre from the stage and offered an engaging and spellbinding experience. Sound — beautiful, violent, joyous, somber, heroic — emanated from the stage, and sweeping lines from all corners of the orchestra naturally grew and fell within the broader context of the piece. The podium gave clear direction and vision to each line. Therefore, within each melody, the broader context of each piece — the highs and lows that preceded and came after — was never forgotten. Every musical line served a greater whole.

Each piece was as clear as crystal. Ears picked up each instrument, even within the joyous tone of the orchestra as a whole. Lines that bounced from player to player or section to section were so easily heard and played with such care that articulation and style were unified across the large ensemble. 

No player or section overpowered one another, something that a stage full of egos sometimes leads to. Each played with grace and an attentive nature, one that highlighted the melody and followed the moving lines. Bass and harmony were not ignored, nor were they the star; they existed in perfect relation to the overarching themes and motifs of each individual piece.

Solos, especially those in the third movement of Mahler’s symphony, were played with utmost precision and character. Each solo carried with it a sense of confidence and ease; at no point was the sound itself unsure, even if the theme was one of frantic mania. The vibrations of each instrument blanketed the listener in a safety that was only achieved through cohesion of character and quality. 

The biggest solo of the night, Krakauer’s performance on clarinet, was simply spellbinding. Composed for the performer, the piece was wonderfully new and contemporary. At times the Granada turned into the streets of New York City, as the music — frantic and yet wholly composed — transported the audience into rush hour traffic as we all tried to unsuccessfully hail a taxi. Krakauer is truly a master of his craft and this virtuoso let his musicianship flow off the stage and into the house. 

Sandwiched between two traditional and classics of the symphony world, Marhulets’ concerto offered a jazzy and modern take on the classical form. Fun, exciting and new, the piece highlighted the brilliant future that classical music has in store if new music is embraced and not shunned away. Elements of rock, jazz, samba and a host of other genres led to a piece that was actively engaging as a listener. Head bopping and stank faces were par for the course.

On Saturday night, the symphony performed and gave so much more to the audience than just a show or night away from the daily trudge of life; it gave the theatre an experience.

Only select pieces of music can speak to someone on a personal level. For most people, that music would have words and been released in the last 20 years. It would be when an artist’s lyrics match one’s own life struggles or the soundscape presents an audible representation of an intangible idea or feeling. But, classical music presents a different challenge. 

The ancient appearance of classical music and its composers, the idea that old music cannot connect to us in the modern age, can cast a veil across the truth. In the age of technology, we cast aside these abstract twists of metal, wood and material for the incomprehensible ones and zeroes of the digital.

So, when the vibrations of strings or the air through brass tubes can connect to the modern human experience, it shows the continuing importance of the medium. The hegemonic idea of the symphony is incorrect and a simplistic view of the spectacle, a night at the symphony, wrongly characterizes the symphony as stuffy and old.

The truth is only revealed when the caliber of musicians, conductor and music coalesce to form an experience. A true experience, when the turbulently smooth sounds of music swirl around and lift one into a world only available through these classical timbres and tones.

An experience is what the Santa Barbara Symphony gave to its audience in the Granada Theatre. In a program that highlighted the richness of classic repertoire, the orchestra filled the hall with the new and the old, with joy and sorrow, with love and anger, but most of all, with passion.

Unity in passion. The musicians, soloist and conductor all played with such care and attention to detail that the music transcended performance and became something greater, something that spoke more about emotions and humanity than the vast majority of other classical performances. The Santa Barbara Symphony showed the titanic strength of music on Saturday and the power of unity in delivering emotions from stage to audience.

The Santa Barbara Symphony returns with Nir Kabaretti to the Granada Theatre on May 18 and 19, with the Marcus Roberts Trio, to celebrate the 100th anniversary of “Rhapsody in Blue” in a must-see performance.