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May 5, 2015: Santa Rosa Symphony Masters Mahler’s Third

By: Steve Osborn, May 5, 2015 - San Francisco Classical Voice

Among Romantic symphonists, Mahler is the king of climaxes; he surges from one to the next orgiastically. His third symphony is a perfect example: It begins strong, fades to quietude, resurges to maximum amplitude, and repeats the process. For listeners willing to ride these waves, the experience can be unforgettable.
The Santa Rosa Symphony's performance of Mahler's epic work, in Weill Hall on a gloomy Sunday in early May, rewarded listeners amply. Under the inspired leadership of Bruno Ferrandis, the orchestra delivered a Mahler Third that remains etched in the mind.
 
The first notes, from no less than nine French horns, were bold, confident, and heraldic. The horns started loud and ended soft, punctuated by the beats of a huge bass drum on the other side of the stage. The notes rang out brightly, thanks in part to the superb acoustics of Weill Hall in Sonoma State University's Green Music Center. Only a slight discord on the top note marred the horn section's otherwise exemplary unison playing.
 
The horns dominated the long first movement, complemented by several gorgeous solos from principal trombonist Bruce Chrisp. Mahler marked the movement as "Strong, determined," and Ferrandis followed that instruction scrupulously. Despite the relatively slow pace and diversity of musical ideas, he marched the orchestra relentlessly forward. His movements on the podium were elegant and relaxed, a distinct change from earlier years when he seemed tense and high-strung.
 
An evocative offstage snare began the final section, which ended with a tremendous climax at top speed. It was hard to imagine what might follow, but the stage entry of Abigail Fischer, a young mezzo soprano, along with a women and children's choir that trooped into the choir loft behind the stage, marked an abrupt shift in mood. The second movement, a minuet, began slowly and quietly in the strings, with no brass in evidence. In the hands of the Symphony, the dance felt airy and graceful, with an effortlessly flowing theme.
 
The second movement morphed seamlessly into the third, marked "Without haste." Superb playing throughout the orchestra highlighted the many playful elements of this pastoral idyll, including bird calls and shimmering reflections. Most evocative, however, was an off-stage trumpet weaving in and out of the sonic fabric.
 
When the "Very slow" fourth movement began, Fischer finally rose from her seat and revealed her glorious voice. Over pianissimo strings, she glided into the rich, low opening words of Nietzsche's "Midnight song." "O Mensch! Gib Acht!" (Oh people, give heed) she sang, with excellent enunciation and a resonant tone. She made each note count.
Fischer continued standing to join with the chorus in the sprightly fifth movement, marked "Happy in tempo and impudent in expression." Here the children stood out, singing without score in purple dresses (girls) and white shirts (boys). Their bell-like voices were clearly audible above the black-clad women, many of whose faces were buried in scores that blocked their sound.
 
The über-climactic finale began magisterially in the strings, with the cellos carrying the melody. Ferrandis and the players were sensitive to the dynamics: Soft passages were truly soft, and loud ones swelled mightily. Mahler could go on forever, but he finally brings matters to a close with not one, but three tremendous climaxes and a sustained ending that closes and opens repeatedly until at last settling on a final note.  

Steve Osborn, a medical writer and editor by day, moonlights as a violist, singer, and music critic.

 

May 4, 2015: Santa Rosa Symphony soars through epic Mahler piece

By: Diane Peterson, May 4, 2015 - Press Democrat

The Santa Rosa Symphony closed its 87th season Saturday under Music Director Bruno Ferrandis with the first of three performances of Mahler’s Symphony No. 3, delivering a confident reading that soared through the span of the 90-minute work without ever looking back.

The concert in the Green Music Center’s Weill Hall marked the first time Ferrandis has conducted a full, Mahler symphony with the orchestra, a longtime dream that had been deferred by the lagging economy. (The army of musicians onstage for this work numbered nearly 170, including orchestra, mezzo-soprano Abigail Fischer and two choirs.)

Ferrandis studied at Juilliard with Mahler’s greatest champion, Leonard Bernstein, and conducted the sprawling and unorthodox work with sensitive restraint, allowing the angst-ridden music to speak for itself.

The orchestra in turn provided the sharp dynamic contrasts, plucky rhythms and seamless transitions that knit together the complicated collage of Mahler’s unique soundscape: military and funeral music, pastoral and Jewish music, all within the classic symphonic shape.

Like Beethoven, Mahler was an outsider — a conductor who composed in his spare time, a Jew who converted to Christianity, a deeply spiritual and idealistic man living in a jaded and decaying society. He was misunderstood by his contemporaries at the turn of the century, but he knew his time would come.

After 75 years of global holocausts spanning the ovens of Auschwitz and the jungles of Vietnam, Bernstein revived Mahler’s music in the 1960s out of appreciation for its unvarnished and prescient truths.

“Only after all of this can we finally listen to Mahler’s music and understand that it foretold all,” Bernstein wrote in 1981. “And in the foretelling it showered a rain of beauty on this world that has not been equaled since.”

For the Mahler lovers out there, sitting through a 90-minute symphony without an intermission — except for a seventh-inning stretch after the first movement — was not a big sacrifice. And for the rest, there were lots of lovely, trance-like moments that lured one to the edge of sleep, if not to the doors of heaven itself.

While a few of the orchestra’s principal players were missing, the assembled troops — including nine French horns, two timpanists and two harpists — pulled together as a well-oiled team to deliver the raw, emotional extremes of this physically challenging work.

Originally performed in piecemeal fashion, the Symphony No. 3 had its first complete performance in June 1902 with Mahler at the podium. The first movement, which he composed last, spans about a third of the symphony’s entire length.

It comprises a series of quick, bright marches interrupted by passages of dirge-like foreboding, but it ends with the triumph of light over dark. The cellos and basses were particularly precise with their grumbling entrances and concertmaster Joe Edelberg provided contrast with sweetly singing solos. The brass sections delivered piercing tone and precise intonation, especially in the solo passages.

After applauding at the triumphant close of first movement, the audience stood and stretched while the Santa Rosa Children’s Chorus and the Santa Rosa Symphony Honor Choir Women’s Chorus filed into the loft behind the stage for movements 2 through 6.

The “posthorn” — an offstage trumpet — did not hit every high note perfectly, but was nonetheless effective in evoking the acoustic space of Mahler’s “nature sound,” the primal experience of hearing a far-off bird or church bell. Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas of the San Francisco Symphony describes this acoustical experience as one of man’s essential needs. “It gives us a sense of perspective on ourselves and our relationship to the earth,” he said in his 1994 book, “Viva Voce.”

Likewise, the rich, marbled voice of mezzo-soprano Fischer struck just the right chord, and the softly sonorous voices of the women’s and children’s choirs — “Bim! Bom! Bim! Bom!” — rang with angelic joy.

The noble tone of the brass and timpani closed the work on a high note, and the audience’s cheers and whistles left no doubt that this grand finale would be remembered as the high point of the orchestra’s first three seasons at the Green Music Center.

With patience and hard work, the musicians under Ferrandis’ baton have grown accustomed to the hall’s sensitive acoustics. If this season is any indication, their future looks bright.

The symphony will repeat the Saturday program at 8 p.m. Monday at the Green Music Center’s Weill Hall at Sonoma State University in Rohnert Park. Tickets: $20 to $80. santarosasymphony.com.

You can reach Staff Writer Diane Peterson at 521-5287 or diane.peterson@pressdemocrat.com.

March 24, 2015: Santa Rosa: The Russians Rule the Roost

By: Paul Hertelendy, March 24, 2015 - artssf.com, the independent observer of San Francisco Bay Area music and dance

The Santa Rosa Symphony has got it all together in the wine country: a fine acoustic, stimulating programming, very good ensemble, and an inviting accessible locale. For the region, a signal asset!
Ever the pessimist, this critic arrived (March 21) expecting the worst. Instead, there was a lustrous “Firebird Suite,” and not one but two concertos played by the expressive Russian pianist Olga Kern. Add to that Weill Hall with its sterling acoustics, and you have a winner.

Kern was informative, spotlighting the contrasts of two leading Russian pianist-composers born in the late 19thcentury, both via their Piano Concerto No. 1. Rachmaninoff, with those huge powerful hands, wrote resonant, consonant chordal music with lovely progressions and memorable themes. Prokofiev on the other hand emphasized nimble virtuosity, with blizzards of high-velocity staccato notes and glissandi looking toward  our musical revolutions that were already budding.

Considered a wild-eyed radical in his day, Prokofiev was unsettled, with unresolved themes even lurking in the woodwinds. But Rachmaninoff meanwhile makes for velvet-glove easy listening by the fireside, with the Russian wolfhound sleeping protectively nearby.

Both were early works, written by 20ish tyros bent on conquering the musical world. Rachmaninoff’s was the less settled piece, calling for his revisions many years later in the version we hear today. Even so, there are moments of rather aimless wandering in the middle, often with the orchestra relegated to the background---the sort of flaws totally eliminated by his glorious Concertos Nos. 2 and 3.

Emerging in a pair of stunning evening gowns that could stop Kremlin traffic, Ms. Kern chose a welcome lyrical route where allowed, rather than taking the easy path of knocking the ivory off the keys.
Her agility at the keyboard was outstanding in both pieces.  Apart from a tendency for her piano to blanket the orchestral sound in the Prokofiev, her appearance was remarkable.

One of the greatest display pieces for sumptuous orchestration remains “The Firebird Suite” by yet another Russian, Igor Stravinsky. It’s a brilliant condensation of a 1910 ballet, full of fairy-tale coloration. This last of several rewrites features splashy glissandi on the trombones, plus that earth-shaking jolt when the evil Kastshei ogre lands unexpectedly on the scene. This is a giant jigsaw puzzle, with myriad instruments and effects. Memorable in the orchestra were solos from French horn (Meredith Brown), oboe (Laura Reynolds) and bassoon (Carla Wilson). Stravinsky must have loved the lowly bassoon, having written for it prominently, here as in “The Rite of Spring,” most notably.

The orchestra sounded very accomplished in this. Music Director Bruno Ferrandis conducted with his customary overblown, gestures, his long lean arms flying in all directions like condor’s wings. But he cued the players well and held his ground atop the podium.

The concert began with the very brief overture to the tragic Janacek opera “Katia Kabanova,” which ends with a strange jolt lacking a concluding cadence, as if the rest of the score were lost.

The SRS plays at Weill Hall, a site where the major expense went, laudably, not into fancy décor, comfort or elegance, but rather first-rate acoustics. My perch at balcony center, I wouldn’t trade with any one, and the considerable stair-climbing required to get there probably assures those  elevated patrons a stout heart and a long, long life.

© Paul Hertelendy 2015. Paul Hertelendy has been covering the dance and modern-music scene in the San Francisco Bay Area with relish -- and a certain amount of salsa -- for years. 

March 23, 2015: Ravishing Russian Music and Soloist Burnish SRS Concert in Weill

By: Terry McNeill, March 23, 2015 - Classical Sonoma

Olga-Kern.png

Photo: Olga Kern

It’s rare in a symphony concert, even one with many surprises, that a soloist takes on two disparate concertos with mostly identical results. But it was exactly the outcome of pianist Olga Kern’s appearance March 21 with the Santa Rosa Symphony in Weill Hall. 

Surprises? The first came with her poetic but subdued performance in Rachmaninoff’s Op. 1 F-Sharp Minor Concerto. Choosing an approach removed from the standard heroism (recordings by the composer and compatriot Mikhail Pletnev) she adopted subtle inner rubatos and voices at the expense of big sonority, even in the first movement sections that clearly reflect the Grieg Concerto written 23 years before Rachmaninoff’s First. The well-played cadenza was assured but lacked the intense ecstasy that is needed throughout cadenzas in the composer’s concertos. 

The Andante Cantabile was perfection, a lyric rumination where conductor Bruno Ferrandis crafted phrasing that melded with Ms. Kern’s deft dynamic control. The final arpeggio in the piano was lovely, as was the horn playing of Meredith Brown. The finale had the requisite excitement that easily overcame short sections where orchestra and soloist were not in sync and where the former’s sound covered the latter. There was a standing ovation and obviously the audience of 1,100 appreciated hearing Rachmaninoff other than the vastly more popular Second and Third Concertos and the Paganini Rhapsody. 

Following intermission the pianist attacked Prokofiev’s D-Flat Major Concerto, the first of his five, and her dry and properly acerbic sound could be heard more clearly than the Rachmaninoff through Prokofiev’s lean orchestral texture. Another surprise was when Ms. Kern unexpectedly inserted small tempo changes and accented bass notes that were artistic and delightfully un-Prokofiev, so different from the composer’s directions for an energetic “mechanical” meter. Her skips and long left-hand crossed notes were always accurate in a work that demands just the right amount of percussive accents and fetching momentum. The applause was loud and long 

It’s difficult to upstage a glamorous soloist as Ms. Kern, but I believe it was done in the reading of the 1945 Suite from Stravinsky’s 1910 ballet “The Firebird.” Mr. Ferrandis drew from the ensemble a 23-minute performance of shimmering orchestral virtuosity. The conductor, like Michael Tilson Thomas in San Francisco, has an affinity for this music and the playing in the Suite’s 11 sections was exhilarating. Among the sterling playing was a duo from Ms. Brown and oboist Laura Reynolds; harpist Dan Levitan; flutist Kathleen Lane Reynolds and Stacey Pelinka (doubling on piccolo); the trombone section; bassoonist Carla Wilson; and clarinetists Roy Zajac and Mark Wardlaw. 

Stravinsky’s consummate orchestration was so vivid in Weill’s acoustics (sitting in the balcony) that the involved piano part, often submerged in similar music by Copland and Shostakovich, was distinctly heard. Kymry Esainko was the pianist. 

Responding to the ovation the effervescent Mr. Ferrandis was called back several times, and took palpable pleasure in pointing to orchestra members to stand and acknowledge the acclaim for the exemplary  achievement in Stravinsky’s iridescent Suite. 

March 21, 2015: A Troika to Remember

By: Steve Osborn, March 21, 2015 - Classical Sonoma

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Photo: SRS Hornist Meredith Brown

At the beginning of the 20th century, Russia was home to three extraordinary composers--Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev, Stravinsky--whose stars continue to shine. Rachmaninoff carried on the Romantic tradition, Stravinsky tried to annihilate it, and Prokofiev landed somewhere in the middle, clinging to traditional forms while injecting radically new content.

Their differences were well illustrated by the Santa Rosa Symphony in their March 22 concert in Weill Hall. Conductor Bruno Ferrandis chose youthful pieces by each one: the Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 1, written when he was 18, the Prokofiev Piano Concerto No. 1, penned at 20, and the Stravinsky "Firebird" suite, at an ancient 27. Pianist Olga Kern played both the concertos, and Symphony first chairs supplied pervasive solos in the Stravinsky.

Wearing a gorgeous one-strap purple gown, the svelte, blond-haired Kern exuded confidence from the opening notes of the Rachmaninoff, and she got better as the concert unfolded. She sits straight but not rigid, her head slightly bent over the keys, her concentration intense. Her arms move as gracefully as a ballerina's, and her fingers fly over the keyboard with flawless rapidity.

Kern didn't really stand out until the cadenza of the opening movement, where she hit low notes with pinpoint accuracy while playing intricate fast passages in the upper registers. She then made a beautiful transition to a slower tempo, changing the mood in a split second.

While the first two movements of the Rachmaninoff are fairly bland, the third--which he reworked at a later date--offers some musical challenges. These Kern met to a degree, but her dynamic range seemed limited, and her interpretations too straightforward. The movement calls for drama and expressivity, but Kern was mostly subdued, if technically perfect.

The Prokofiev, which began the second half, ratcheted the drama up by several notches. The memorable opening phrase, with its strong accent at the top of a melodic arch, calls for all-out playing from both orchestra and soloist. Here Kern got more in the mood, playing the many iterations of opening phrase with vigor and the subsequent passages with fierce intensity. While at times hampered by inadequate dynamic contrast, she drove into the final section relentlessly, engaging in an animated call and response with the orchestra. The run-up to the end was truly bravura, and the sustained ovation well deserved.

After the Prokofiev, the orchestra emerged from the shadows to perform the suite from Stravinsky's "Firebird" ballet, a staple of the modern repertoire. Beginning with a six-note figure in the low strings, the suite moves inexorably forward, each section reflecting the action of the ballet. Even without the dancers, one can imagine their motions.

In the "Firebird," with its spiky rhythms and incessant melodic handoffs, all the orchestral parts have to fit exactly for the music to work. The fit in this performance was precise, and hearing the hot-potato phrases skip from woodwinds to brass to strings was a sonic delight. Ferrandis held everyone together with a steady beat that was easy to read.

The "Firebird" unfolds by degrees. Most of the first half is relatively subdued, with frequent solos from first chairs, most memorably the French horn. Horn principal Meredith Brown played each of her solos impeccably, with wonderful tone. The enchanting interplay between soloists and full orchestra came to an abrupt end with a mighty blow to the bass drum. The transition was so effective that several people around me jumped in their seats.

The tempo in the latter part of the suite was often fervid, with Ferrandis leading the charge. The brass,led by principal trumpeter Doug Morton, were especially prominent. The sustained buildup led to a tremendous orchestral chord and an abrupt transition to quietude, marked by a wonderful bassoon solo from principal Carla Wilson. During a subsequent pianissimo tremolo from the strings, the audience sat in pin-drop silence. The final bars, marked by a restatement of the horn solo and principal theme, were nothing short of triumphant, culminating in a thrilling final chord.

The concert was the best of the Symphony's season to date, and their performance of the "Firebird" was exceptional. Another reason for the concert's success was the cogent choice of repertoire. The beginning of the 20th century was a splendid time for music in Russia, and the concert displayed the range and depth of that period. Now if only Ferrandis could assemble a concert with substantial works by three 21st century American composers. Future audiences might find them as innovative and inspiring as their Russian counterparts.

Steve Osborn, a medical writer and editor by day, moonlights as a violist, singer, and music critic.

February 9, 2015: Bandoneon and Orchestra Partner Uneasily in New Concerto

By: Steve Osborn, February 9, 2015 - San Francisco Classical Voice



Left: Bruno Ferrandis, Right: Juan Pablo Jofre

Seeing a bandoneón player in front of a symphony orchestra reminds one of the old joke about a kangaroo walking into a high-priced bar. The bartender says, "We don't get many kangaroos in here," to which the kangaroos replies, "With these prices, I can see why."

Fitting a squeeze-box Argentinian bandoneón – an essential element of tango dance-hall bands – into a classical-music milieu is a bit of a stretch. The two sound-worlds are so fundamentally different that it's hard to imagine how they could intersect. Nonetheless, star Argentinian bandoneónist J.P. Jofre and the Santa Rosa Symphony gave it a whirl on Sunday at Weill Hall in Rohnert Park, premiering a concerto for bandoneón and orchestra by Pablo Ortiz, an Argentinian professor of composition at UC Davis.

The results ranged from the transcendent to the perplexing. In the transcendent corner were a number of arresting passages, usually slow, that allowed the bandoneón's plangent sound to pierce through the orchestral haze. On the perplexing side were passages in which the bandoneón line seemed utterly random, unable to find a thematic center. In the middle of the ring was Jofre, who delivered all his many solos with technical mastery and sensitivity.

Jofre is a striking presence on the stage. Clad in a black leather jacket and wearing white-framed designer glasses, he put his right foot atop a piano stool and placed the bandoneón (essentially a large concertina) on his right knee. The buttons on the instrument activate reeds, which produce a distinctive, often melancholy sound, somewhere between an organ and a harmonica.

The opening movement of Ortiz's concerto steered clear of melancholy. Instead, Jofre opened by noodling rapid notes in his right hand while the orchestra stayed at arm's length. Later in the movement, a slow passage brought the bandoneón's distinctive sound to the fore. Here orchestra and instrument finally meshed.

That union continued in the second movement, which opened with shimmering strings and an evocative solo from Jofre that was both nostalgic and yearning. Things perked up considerably in the concluding movement, with its insistent dance beat, syncopation, and wonderful marimba solos. Jofre joined in with some spectacular playing and intricate passagework.

Called back to the stage by strong applause, Jofre offered a more traditional bandoneón solo for an encore, theCapricho Otoñal by Leopoldo Federico. The contrast with the concerto was striking. The sound was louder, the melody more tender, and the notes more connected, almost slurred. The two pieces did, however, share the same pervasive melancholy that seems inseparable from the instrument's sound.
The remainder of the concert was far more upbeat, from an unexpected preconcert viola solo to the rousing finale of Brahms' Second Symphony. The viola soloist was Aimee Gruen, a member of the Symphony's youth orchestra, who played a selection from Ernest Bloch's Suite Hebraic as part of a fundraising effort for the youth orchestra's upcoming tour of China.

The adult version of the orchestra weighed in next with a sparkling reading of the Danzón No. 2 by Arturo Márquez.  Conductor Bruno Ferrandis held everyone together, although at times his conducting seemed a bit frantic.

The Brahms Symphony No. 2, played after intermission, is not the least bit frantic. Here Ferrandis allowed the majestic themes to rise and fall at a leisurely pace. The opening movement featured outstanding French horn solos by principal Meredith Brown, complemented by a lush sound from the strings.

You expect more rhythmic contrast from the third movement, but again the pace was leisurely. Presto sections verged on Allegro, and the syncopations, while well played, didn't really pop. The fourth began more energetically, with Ferrandis picking up the pace. The ensemble was meticulous, the dynamics well controlled, the drive to the end relentless. 

Steve Osborn, a medical writer and editor by day, moonlights as a violist, singer, and music critic.

January 12, 2015: Mark O'Connor & the Santa Rosa Symphony: Americana with a Flashing Bow

By: Steve Osborn, January 12, 2015 - San Francisco Classical Voice



Mark O’Connor (Left), Michael Christie (Right) photo: Krista Campbell 

Mark O’Connor is an extraordinary fiddler, as he amply demonstrated via his bravura performance with the Santa Rosa Symphony on Sunday afternoon. Whether he is an extraordinary composer is open to debate.

The audience had ample time to judge O’Connor’s compositional skills during the program, half of which was taken up by the outer movements of his lengthy “Fiddle Concerto” and the entirety of his much shorter “Strings and Threads.” The other half went to another American, Aaron Copland, who also mines folk-music material.

O’Connor's writing ranges from the predictable to the sublime. The latter quality was nowhere more evident than in his concerto’s final cadenza, which begins with a plaintive melody that evokes the melancholy of the Appalachians.

Clad in a sharkskin suit, O’Connor first set off the melody with double stops, but then took flight and enveloped the tune with a swirling halo of rapid-fire notes in the upper registers, all played sotto voce (quiet voice). The effect was haunting, even mesmerizing.

The cadenza continued in this vein for quite a while. The passagework got ever trickier, and O'Connor's bow flew ever faster until he suddenly lifted it off the strings and played a two-handed pizzicato with fingers plucking from all directions. Just as abruptly, he disdained the strings and played his instrument as if it were a drum, tapping his fingers everywhere but the fingerboard.

Taken by itself, the cadenza was a musical delight. But it was just one component of the concerto; a substantial work that features a full orchestra — in this case led by guest conductor Michael Christie — and plenty of back and forth with the soloist. Here, O’Connor's skills were less evident. The concerto is essentially a pastiche, with a string of less-than-memorable tunes strung together by O’Connor's instrumental virtuosity, much like Paganini used to do.

O’Connor often tries to develop themes by starting them at the bottom of the scale, then repeating them up a step, then another step, and so forth until reaching an artificial climax at the top. Another favored device is for the soloist to repeat orchestral material with substantial embellishments, playing a bevy of notes when one or two might suffice. This device, which one might call “poly-notalism,” dazzles at first but gets tiresome when every line is filled with hemidemisemiquavers.
On balance, O’Connor’s virtuosity and infectious enthusiasm more than compensated for the concerto’s structural deficiencies. That was even more the case in “Strings and Threads,” an unabashed suite of folk-like tunes written by O’Connor and played by him and his wife Maggie O’Connor, with the orchestra acting as little more than a basso continuo.

Mrs. O’Connor, wearing a gossamer orange gown, proved to be her husband’s match in terms of finger and bow speed, but her sound was more subdued, perhaps because of her violin.

The two took turns playing the beguiling melodies, which more or less trace the history of American folk music, from an ancient-sounding “Fair Dancer Reel” to a swing-based “Sweet Suzanne.” The playing throughout was dazzling and rapid, with occasional ritards during the bluesier numbers.

Copland, like O’Connor, often bases his music on folk material, but his approach is entirely different. Instead of taking the tunes at face value, he strips them to the core and then reassembles the material in his own distinctive voice. The tunes are still in there somewhere, but the composition — be it Billy the Kid or El Salón México — is pure Copland.

Michael Christie, the guest conductor, opened the concert with a competent but somewhat lackluster reading of Billy the Kid, a seven-movement suite drawn from the ballet of the same name. Christie is an unobtrusive leader, with feet solidly planted and arms giving a compact and consistent beat. His technique was helpful for Copland's tricky rhythms and copious syncopation, but it failed to deliver a compelling arc for the entire work.
Orchestra and conductor fared much better in El Salón México, which closed the concert. Here Christie began with an invigorating tempo while maintaining a clean sound. The many brass and woodwind solos emerged from that texture with startling clarity. Even better, the precise beats and carefully observed syncopations created palpable tension as Christie kept driving the orchestra forward.

In El Salón México, the rests are as important as the notes. Instead of creating a fluid line, Copland offers only glimpses, engaging the audience to fill in the gaps. Nothing lands where you think it will, even in the long crescendo to the end. These last few moments gave rise to the best playing of the afternoon. Surely the tensions had to resolve, and they finally did with a triumphant final chord.

Steve Osborn, a medical writer and editor by day, moonlights as a violist, singer, and music critic

December 8, 2014: Symphony's Stravinsky a Wind and Rhythmic Feast

By: Terry McNeill, December 8, 2014 - Classical Sonoma

Santa Rosa Symphony conductor Bruno Ferrandis put together a curious program mix Dec. 8 in Weill Hall that on paper promised a culture clash, but actually delivered a memorable musical experience. Composers often fashion suites from orchestral works, and just as often the shorter suite can be more effective than the complete piece. Stravinsky’s 1920 ballet Pulcinella in the popular abridged form is a familiar concert piece, but the complete work comprised the program’s second half, and it’s far more effective than the Suite from 1935. And in just over forty minutes it was a feast for the Symphony’s ten wind and brass instruments. Soprano Kindra Scharich, tenor Jonathan Smucker and bass Kirk Eichelberger formed the solo trio and sang the parts in an animated but sometimes ungrateful Neapolitan Italian. But the evening’s standout performances came from stellar oboist Laura Reynolds; flutists Kathleen Lane Reynolds and Stacey Pelinka (doubling on piccolo); bassoonists Carla Wilson and Karla Ekholm; and the lone trombone player, Bruce Chrisp. Lovely duets abounded: cello and trombone, bassoon (not always playing together) and oboe-flute. The conductor’s mastery of Stravinsky’s complex rhythms was admirable, and concertmaster Joseph Edelberg played elegant and succinct solos. In the first half the 37-member Augsburg Boys Choir performed six a capella motets and were the chorus for Mozart’s Coronation Mass, K. 317. Though the six selections in German had variety, including antiphonal stage grouping in Praetorius’ Nun komm, der Heiden Heilen, Lassus’ forceful and complex Tui sunt cáeli, et túa est térre and the Philipp Silcher celebratory Christmas song In dulci jubilo, they lacked cumulative dramatic impact. Technically attacks and cutoffs were good but often phrases were choppy and from my balcony seat the high tessitura was at times muddy. The frequent group movements on stage seemed unnecessary and time consuming. Choir Director Reinhard Kammler conducted and was at the piano for a choral encore, the carol “Oh Holy Night,” beginning in English with subsequent stanzas appearing to be in the original French. The ovation from the nearly full Weill audience was loud. Mozart’s short C Major “Coronation” Mass from 1779 concluded the first half in a rousing performance with three boys from the Augsburg group joining Mr. Smucker as the vocal quartet. Occasionally the orchestra covered the Choir and Mr. Ferrandis worked hard with quick eye and baton movements to get a balanced blend of sound. Used as a continuo, the organ was mostly inaudible through four speakers at back stage left, and the real sonic underpinning came from the brass, timpanist Andrew Lewis and four bass viols. With quick tempos and piquant drama the Mass had a thoroughly graceful and Mozartian flair, with beautiful singing in the Benedictus. The unnamed-in-the-program Augsburg boy soprano sang with fervor, but I missed the color and range of a real soprano. Ms. Scharich’s operatic voice would have been a formidable substitute

November 10, 2014: A French Cello Concerto from a Distant World

By: Terry McNeill, November 10, 2014 - Classical Sonoma

Several surprises characterized the Santa Rosa Symphony’s Nov. 10 Weill Hall concert, the first being an almost full house on a Monday night after the same program was heard the two previous days. 

The important surprise was how well the audience liked the thorny Dutilleux cello concerto, Tour un Monde Lointain (A Whole Distant World). It was written for Rostropovich in 1970 and played to the hilt by Swiss cellist soloist Christian Poltéra. It was a courageous program selection by conductor Bruno Ferrandis, especially when surrounded by familiar and sober works by Debussy and Beethoven. 

Taking just under 30 minutes in five movements, the Concerto asks the soloist for pristine high-register bowing, eerie descending slides down the finger board and often projecting a wide vibrato in difficult fingering positions and phrases. Mr. Poltéra mastered the difficulties with seeming ease, playing from score and in sync with Mr. Ferrandis’ exact orchestra control. 

Highlights for me were the duets between concertmaster Jay Zhong and Mr. Poltéra in the fetching lament of the Regard (Gaze) second movement; the novel sound of celesta winding in an out of the percussion lines (marimba, xylophone, bongo drums and triangle); and the interplay between single harp notes and the Symphony’s resonant cello and bass sections. Throughout this wonderful work there are wisps from Shostakovich’s Second Cello Concerto, a contemporary piece to the Dutilleux. But the often hazy and shimmering French composer’s sonority is unique, as was Mr. Poltéra’s softly fading cello tremolo ending. 

Messrs. Poltéra and Ferrandis were recalled three times by an enthusiastic ovation. 

Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony in A Major closed the evening, a four-movement work with the orchestra sharply reduced in size from the two previous compositions. An extended introduction established vehement rhythmic patterns from timpanist Andrew Lewis and the playing everywhere was surefooted, especially in duos between piccolo player Stacey Pelinka and the warm flute of Kathleen Lane Reynolds. 

Though omitting a slow movement, the composer wrote an ebullient scherzo and a demanding Presto third movement that was performed with precision and flair. Bassoonists Carla Wilson and Shawn Jones were heard clearly from my balcony seat, as were two blaring but congruent trumpeters. Mr. Ferrandis kept the Symphony’s momentum going into the wild and swirling finale, deftly balancing the rhythmic definition and taking a tempo that seemed overly fast but oh so right. 

The applause was loud and select members of the Symphony were recognized by the conductor. 

Opening the concert was a delicate and carefully paced performance of Debussy’s Prelude a L’aprés-midi d’un faune (Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun). Though radical in its time, the now familiar work from 1894 is as captivating as any 11-minute work in the literature. After the famous opening flute solo, played alluringly by Kathleen Lane Reynolds, the performance contained virtuosic playing from hornist Meredith Brown, harpist Randall Pratt, clarinetist Roy Zajac, oboist Laura Reynolds and bassoonist Carla Wilson. 

Mr. Ferrandis conducted from score and drew rich and gauzy colors from the strings, especially from the viola section. 

October 25, 2014: Joshua Bell Strads in Santa Rosa

By: Steve Osborn, October 25, 2014 - San Francisco Classical Voice

Since the Green Music Center opened in 2012, Sonoma County has been awash in great violinists. In two short years, the GMC has already hosted Hilary Hahn, Anne Sophie Mutter, Itzhak Perlman, Vadim Repin and Gil Shaham, among other luminaries. On Friday, Joshua Bell joined the list — except he didn't play at the GMC.
 
Thanks to a colossal scheduling mix-up, Bell and his accompanist Alessio Bax ended up at the Wells Fargo Center, the old home of the Santa Rosa Symphony, which presented Bell's recital as a benefit concert. Thus Bell and his 1713 Stradivarius were relegated to the acoustically defective Wells Fargo stage while the GMC stood empty. In the first half, Bell didn’t much help his own cause. He projected a thin, somewhat superficial tone, bypassing repeated opportunities to dig in and draw more from his Strad. He was more like an ice skater than a pearl diver. Fortunately, that all changed after intermission, when Bell finally broke through and delivered a masterful performance.
 
The repertoire may have figured into Bell’s transformation. He opened with Schubert’s “Duo” sonata, a lovely piece written when the composer was 20. One would expect Bell to bring new insight and feeling into Schubert’s familiar melodies, but his tempos were middling and his dynamic range was limited, settling mostly into mezzo piano. His technique was of course flawless, and his bowing was superb, but Schubert seemed far away. There was no arch to his performance: the end was the same as the beginning.
 
The subsequent Grieg sonata in F major — his first, written when he was 22 — was equally dispassionate, although Bell did begin to warm up on his lower strings and to exhibit some body movement other than gentle swaying.
Grieg’s fellow composer Gerhard Schjelderup famously remarked that the first sonata is “the work of a youth who has seen only the sunny side of life.” Bell projected that sunny element, zipping through all manner of treacherous string crossings and flashy runs without breaking a sweat. The sonata, however, never goes much beyond sunny. The main impression is of a series of incompletely developed musical ideas connected by a string of false cadences. As with the Schubert, there was no arch, no forward motion pulling the listener along.
 
Feeling discouraged, I changed my seat at intermission in the hopes of escaping the HVAC and getting better sound. The new location was much improved, well suited to the new Bell who strolled onstage with Bax after the break and began talking to the audience for the first time. His goal was to introduce the F Minor Prokofiev, one of the great violin sonatas, right up there with Beethoven’s Kreutzer. “In a word,” observed Bell, “this sonata is Death.”
 
In his brief remarks, Bell condensed the theme of each movement to a single word or phrase, with the first being the Machine; the second, Hell; the third, Heaven; and the last a synthesis, culminating in pianissimo “wind over the grave” violin scales.
 
This narrative unveiled the arch that Bell had previously lacked. From the opening notes, he and Bax offered palpable drama marked by strong rhythms, an immense dynamic range and razor-sharp intonation. Bell’s double stops in the opening movement were particularly notable, but so were his pizzicato and his relentless runs up and down the fingerboard. It was an authoritative performance, imbued with mystery and insight.
 
The two musicians chose a deliberate tempo in the second movement, “Hell,” which features a repeated series of down bows on the lower strings — a riveting trope that commands attention. Bell tried to squeeze every last bit of sound out of his Strad, projecting an aura of barely contained fury. That intensity heightened the contrast to the quiescent “Heaven” movement, which emerged out of Bell’s violin like a floating cloud of sound. He leaned far forward as if to shape the cloud, his instrumental voice never rising above a whisper.
 
The finale began as a furious rush, recapitulating previous themes and introducing new ones. The “wind over the grave” was much in evidence, as was a series of beguiling chords. The most gripping passage, however, was the last: long notes formed into a transcendent phrase.
 
The Prokofiev sonata was more than enough, but Bell offered two encores: the Rachmaninov Vocalise and Sarasate’s Introduction and Tarantella, an over-the-top showpiece that was simply astounding.
 
Now that Bell has shown what he can do in dire circumstances, one can only hope that he will return to Sonoma County as soon as possible, this time in a better venue.

Steve Osborn, a medical writer and editor by day, moonlights as a violist, singer, and music critic.

October 12, 2014: Miraculous Bartok at the Santa Rosa Symphony

By: Steve Osborn, October 12, 2014 - Classical Sonoma

The Santa Rosa Symphony saved the best for last in its Oct. 12 Sunday afternoon concert, much like a home baseball team that scores the winning run in the bottom of the ninth. They led off with a tentative but ultimately captivating reading of Richard Strauss's "Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks," followed with a solid but subdued performance of Beethoven's "Emperor" piano concerto, hit their stride with Wagner's "Tannhaüser" overture, and finally scored with Bartok's magnificent "The Miraculous Mandarin."

That final work, written for a scandalous ballet, was easily the most riveting of the afternoon. Beginning with a propulsive opening in the second violins, the score is one long, tense buildup to a bloody and anguished climax. In the ballet, three criminals force a prostitute to lure customers in order to rob them. Their plans are thwarted by a mysterious mandarin who falls in love with the prostitute and repels their attacks.

Musically, this lurid plot induces restless energy and seething tension. The most prominent musical device is a sharply syncopated melodic line over a perpetually shifting drone. The violas played the first such line with powerful unison and great expression. They were followed by the cellos and then a series of bewitching solos from the clarinets and trombones.

The texture was wonderfully dense, with each section of the orchestra playing in a range of timbres. Conductor Bruno Ferrandis urged everyone forward at a feverish pitch, leading to a shattering ending and sustained applause. The only regret was that no dancers were on hand to enact Bartok's remarkable score.

The Bartok was a welcome and unexpected end to an afternoon of crowd favorites, beginning with Strauss's oft-performed tone poem. The playing here was precise but too deliberate to bring out the humor of the story, which revolves around Till's various pranks and his ultimate trip to the gallows. Ferrandis seemed a bit stiff in his gestures, a little too measured. A more relaxed approach might have induced more flexible playing and stronger dramatic contrasts.

By the march to the gallows, however, both Ferrandis and the orchestra had warmed up, and the playing was resplendent. The coda was magical.

Swift on the heels of Strauss came Beethoven's Fifth Concerto with the Russian soloist Yevgeny Sudbin. He is a technically dazzling pianist in his thirties who is all business. His basic posture is to bend his head forward and hunch into the piano so that it occupies his entire field of vision. You would never know what he's playing based on his body language--he barely moves, except for his hands, which hang suspended in mid-air.

Sudbin uses lots of pedal but has an exceedingly delicate touch. His trills are rock-solid and expressive, a talent he used repeatedly throughout the concerto. Trills are so prominent in the Emperor that they become a method of sustaining notes, almost like bowing across a string or breathing into a horn.

The playing was faultless but ultimately somewhat timid. Sudbin didn't project as much as he could have, and his climactic moments were perfunctory, particularly at the end of the concerto where his final triumphant run up the keyboard seemed to peter out. Nonetheless, it was an accomplished performance, and it earned a standing ovation.

Ovations were also in order for the student musicians from the Symphony's top-tier youth orchestra who joined their elder colleagues after intermission to play Wagner's familiar overture to the opera “Tannhaüser.” The opening was magisterial and the mood triumphant, with Ferrandis conducting in sweeping gestures. This being Wagner, the horns were a central feature, but the strings also had their moments, particularly the violas, whose part was unusually prominent.

"Tannhaüser" is Wagner at his most commanding and assured. The players really leaned into their lines, and the resonant themes stood out in sharp relief. It was great theater, and it bodes well for the future that so many young musicians were able to join in.

October 12, 2014: Wide-ranging season opener a hit

By: Gabe Meline, October 12, 2014 - The Press Democrat

The Santa Rosa Symphony opened its 2014-2015 season Saturday night at the Green Music Center in a stellar performance titled “Heroes and Legends.” Launching its third year in residence at the Sonoma State venue, the orchestra proved once again the hall’s impeccable acoustics in a dynamic, dramatic program.
Guest pianist Yevgeny Sudbin delivered the night’s centerpiece, Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5, the “Emperor” concerto. Yet in the sheer variety of the remaining pieces, maestro Bruno Ferrandis placed himself in a familiar position. Even more than his predecessor Jeffrey Kahane, Ferrandis has a penchant for stringing together unexpected, disparate pieces in the same evening.

A vivacious opening of the Richard Strauss tone poem “Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks” set the pace for the night. In sometimes frantic rondo form, the tone poem utilized the orchestra’s low, brawny brass and percussion to great effect, darting the mood between tragedy and lightness. Ferrandis, an avowed aficionado of Strauss’ tone poems, smiled broadly at the conclusion.

Subdin, the award-winning 34-year-old Russian-born pianist, took the stage next for the fan favorite. The “Emperor” concerto benefited from Subdin’s sound judgment, which avoided the syrupy, gossamer touch other pianists employ in certain softer passages of Beethoven’s well-known work. Though he struggled to find his touch in the early stages of the concerto’s first movement, Subdin seemed to rise from the bench both physically and psychically at its finish.

Taking on a newfound fluid expressiveness in the second movement, Subdin’s artistry became a balanced mix of technique and emotion. Whether holding out lengthy trills or flying up and down the keyboard in long runs, the performance was an act of bringing Beethoven’s music to life instead of milking the life out of it. A well-earned standing ovation followed.

The program’s second half brought two more pieces, Wagner’s “Tannhauser” overture and Bartok’s Suite from “The Miraculous Mandarin,” that seemed, on paper, to be so unrelated as to be selections pulled from a hat. And yet Ferrandis and the orchestra wrested the requisite excitement from each of the pieces to sustain the consistent theme of drama throughout the evening.

This was especially present during “Tannhauser’s” overture, a musical push-pull between good and evil. The orchestra came together as a unit to illustrate the tension up to final passage, charging with elated horns and cascading strings. The only way more triumph could have been present is if an armored gladiator had emerged on a horse, galloping down the aisles of the hall to the stage.

As a closer that started after 10 p.m., “Miraculous Mandarin” kept the audience awake. A musical imagining of a struggle between three thieves and a prostitute, the horn-heavy piece periodically jolted, prodded and punched the air throughout the hall.

After a series of terrifying sound clusters and propulsive drums, the orchestra came to a sudden halt, capping the evening to rapturous applause.

The wide-ranging program raises a larger philosophical question about context, one asked every time a radio programmer chooses the next track, a teenager makes a music playlist or a DJ drops the needle on the record at a club: how is one piece of music elevated or diminished by that which comes both immediately before and afterward?

In ‘Heroes and Legends,’ which repeats at 3 p.m. Sunday and 8 p.m. Monday, the answer was high drama. Once again, Ferrandis and the Santa Rosa Symphony proved that traditional coherence among a program’s pieces is not necessarily a prerequisite for excellence.

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