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January 9, 2017: Symphonic splendor and harp viruosity at SRS concert

By: , January 9, 2017 - Terry McNeill, Classical Sonoma

A rainy winter Weill Hall audience of 800 heard the Santa Rosa Symphony Jan. 7 in an eclectic program of four composers including a provocative harp concerto. The music was preceded by manifold stage announcements and somber recognition of SRS musicians that had recently died. 

A rollicking performance of Rossini’s ‘Thieving Magpie” overture was a splendid opener, played at a quick tempo and spotlighting snare drum and dramatic percussion effects. All evening an eight-musician percussion section and superb wind playing were showcased by conductor Bruno Ferrandis, and the jaunty overture from 1819 had the requisite flash and verve. I am always struck with how starkly different Rossini’s music was in 1819, when juxtaposed with the prevailing Germanic style of Beethoven, Schubert and Weber 

French harpist Marie-Pierre Langlament was the soloist in the Ginastera Concerto, Op. 25, and the instrument brought on stage (hers?) was subtly amplified. The piece is awash in swirling sonic effects, handled with aplomb by Ms. Langlament who must have known the work from youth. Most performances I have heard have had solo playing that was aggressive and often rushed, but Ms. Langlament found elegance in the demanding samba-like rhythms and rapid phrases high in the treble. Nothing was forced or out of balance. 

In the lovely Molto Moderato there was fetching playing from the flute (Kathleen Reynolds), clarinet (Roy Zajac), oboe (Laura Reynolds) and bassoonist Carla Wilson, leading into an extended harp cadenza that was played with compelling virtuosity. The driving rhythms and sharp dynamic contrasts of the concluding Vivace were carefully controlled by the conductor and the sonorous excitement produced a standing ovation and two curtain calls. 

Returning to the stage after intermission for Debussy’s Danses Sacrée et Profane Ms. Langlament played a different harp, and took a few moments to touch up tuning. The ten-minute bucolic piece for strings was again played with the same secure control and authority that was heard in the Concerto, but with a lush and warm tone and seamless modulations. Mr. Ferrandis is at home with the music and crafted waltzes that were aristocratic as well as sensual. 

Ravel’s two big suites from Daphnis et Chloé closed the program in orchestral splendor, making full use of nine percussionists, two harps, xylophone, celesta and with a husky wind machine at the back of the stage. The Suites from the 1912 ballet are often presented with an off-stage choir singing haunting wordless expressions, but Mr. Ferrandis omitted this and the luxurious music had no need of the few seconds of faux artificial wind. 

There was nothing affected or omitted about the playing the first Suite, though after several faulty entrances the performance settled down and the conductor skillfully managed the many tempo changes and drew a reading that was at times white hot with excitement. The “Sunrise” opening in the second Suite was luminous, even without the choir, and the Symphony’s winds were stellar. Ms. Reynolds’ beguiling long solo was reminiscent of Vaughan William’s violin solo in the “Lark Ascending,” and Mr. Ferrandis acknowledged standout playing from Stacy Pelinka and Carmen Lemoine (flute and piccolo), Meredith Brown (horn) and trumpeters Scott Macomber and Kale Cumings. The wind playing mastery reached its zenith with a brilliant flute trio playing off the clarinet, bassoon and oboe lines in the Pantomine and Danse Générale sections. 

Clearly this was music in Mr. Ferrandis’ French “sweet spot” and his consummate and precision orchestral control was equaled only by his grand interpretative choices. 

Robert Hayden contributed to this review.

December 5, 2016: Poetic, but not really Poe-etic: "The Bells" sparks Santa Rosa Symphony program

By: , December 5, 2016 - Paul Hertelendy, artsSF.com

ROHNERT PARK, CA---To catch important musical works, it can take an hour’s drive out of an arts capital to reach them.

Credit the Santa Rosa Symphony and amalgamated choruses for bringing out that very eloquent but little-known choral symphony of Sergei Rachmaninoff, “The Bells,” given in the concerts of Dec. 3-5 here. The composer called it his number one achievement.

Coming from his palette in 1913, the 35-minute piece contains some of Rachmaninoff’s most skillful musical effects. If you only know the big three piano-cum-orchestra opuses, then, my friend, you don’t yet know Rachmaninoff the deft orchestrator, the master of rich romantic textures who could also produce consummate articulation in a diaphanous orchestra.

Like the composer’s life itself, “Bells” combines both Russian and American strains, using poetry of E.A. Poe. The piece is poetic, but not really Poe-etic. It’s a very free adaptation of Poe into Russian, then set to music, and now translated back into English in an even freer adaptation (Is that Mr. Poe himself we see, turning over in his grave?).

Its four movements present distinct themes, doled out to individual vocal soloists: childhood, wedding days, sheer horror (my favorite) and deathly doom-in-tomb. The finale contained the most memorable singing by far on opening night, with veteran operatic basso Philip Skinner and his fiery, booming voice in total command, as if prepping for Verdi’s “Requiem.”

Cuing his forces throughout, the wiry French Music director Bruno Ferrandis had clearly worked hard readying this rarity, and his orchestra did the rest. Though the audience reaction was tepid-to-polite, perhaps because the last movement is the most subtle and somber, the interpretation was exquisite, one of the best at the SRS.

Bells play little role in the music itself. Childhood is marked by silvery flute effects and a humming chorus, plus high (angelic?) female voices. The wedding section turns both sensual and tender, white the “horror” segment bristles with turbulence and dissonance. The chaos reflects souls in distress, as the chorus turns chromatic, and harp arpeggios emphasized the instability  of the infernal scene.

Effective and attractive instrumental solos peppered the program, coming from SRS principal players Roy Zajac, Meg Eldridge, Adelle-Akiko Kearns and Jesse Barrett.

While unusual, a choral symphony is not a new concept, used as format by Berlioz (“Romeo and Juliet”), Mahler (“Das Lied von der Erde”) and others.

Also featured was Elgar’s best and most played work, the “Enigma” Variations, that very durable mystery opus. It offers multiple mysteries which Elgar was not forthcoming to reveal. Why enigma? Who was the lady friend on an unmistakable sea voyage, in the variation ID’d as merely “***”? And what is the hidden principal theme which is never played (as he confessed), which no one can identify? (When asked if he’d reveal the theme, he always growled “Never!” implying it could be from the British song “Rule, Brittania.”)

Opening it all, a tone poem “Prayer Bells” by Augusta Read Thomas, 52. Full of rich sonorities, doleful horns and deep sounds, the ominous opus opens up to a full-throated “angry birds” orchestral finale. There were bells here, as elsewhere, but not much, to judge by involvement of the percussionist teetering atop a ladder hitting the tubular percussion.  

MUSIC NOTES---Ferrandis, who has audibly grown as an interpreter since arriving, will have logged an 11-year tenure as M.D. next summer. A replacement search will be underway next season, with five candidates.

SANTA ROSA SYMPHONY, with choruses, music of Rachmaninoff, Elgar, Thomas. Green Center, Sonoma State Univ., Dec. 3-5. For SRS info: (707) 546-8742, or go online. www.srsymphony.org

December 4, 2016: Hear the tolling of the bells--iron bells!

By: , December 4, 2016 - Steve Osborn, Classical Sonoma

Thanks to the generosity of Don Green (as in Green Music Center), the Santa Rosa Symphony has for many years performed an annual choral program, usually during the holiday season. In keeping with this tradition, the orchestra and the SSU Symphonic Chorus featured Rachmaninoff’s choral symphony “The Bells” during their Dec. 3-5 concert set (I attended on Dec. 4). Rachmaninoff’s title suggests a festive work appropriate to the season, but the reality is that “The Bells” is a peculiarly Russian version of Edgar Allan Poe’s captivating but ultimately tragic poem, more suitable for mourning than merriment. 

The music of “The Bells” is among Rachmaninoff’s best, mixing equal parts of passion and invention. The third movement, “Alarm Bells,” is particularly stirring in its mixture of fortissimo choral lines, unusual orchestration and melodic fervor. Both choir and orchestra proved up to the task in this performance, with lines like “In a tuneless, jangling wrangling as they shriek, and shriek, and shriek” ringing forth with clear diction and enormous power. Maestro Bruno Ferrandis conducted with vigor, and the orchestra sustained the drama throughout. 

The other movements were less impressive, hampered by often inaudible soloists, imperfect balance and a strangely perverted translation and retranslation of Poe from English to Russian to English. Much is lost in transit, such as Poe’s insistent repetition of key words--bells, time, tinkle--and his rhythmic intensity. Captivating lines like “How they tinkle, tinkle, tinkle / In the icy air of night” are debased into “Rippling sounds of laughter falling / On the icy midnight air.” 

These textual difficulties were somewhat moot during the performance because the words were often hard to hear and nearly impossible to read in the darkness. Perhaps the powers that be could raise the auditorium lights slightly during vocal performances or even consider using supertitles, as in opera houses. 

Tenor soloist Christopher Bengochea sang with excellent diction, but his voice was somewhat dark, and his head was often buried in the score. Soprano Jenni Samuelson has a lovely voice, but her insistent vibrato sometimes overpowered the text; her performance was much better in Rachmaninoff’s wordless “Vocalise,” which ended the program. Baritone Philip Skinner was the most impressive soloist, enunciating his mournful lines with deep resonance. He was also the most engaged with the audience, rarely referring to his score. 

“The Bells” was actually the second bell-related piece on the program, which opened with a spirited performance of contemporary composer August Read Thomas’s “Prayer Bells.” Like many other modern compositions, the work is built around a single sustained note, or drone, heard in different octaves. The melodic material, such as it is, begins and ends on the drone, with no forward progression. Attention thus focuses on orchestral color and quality of sound, which was impressive; but the lack of forward motion was frustrating. 

The highlight of the concert was Elgar’s “Enigma Variations,” which earned a standing ovation before intermission from the packed house. The majestic ninth variation, “Nimrod,” is often played by itself, but it sounds even better when heard in the context of the 13 other variations on Elgar’s “Enigma” theme. 

Unlike purely musical variations, Elgar’s are based on the characteristics of individual people, with only distant references to the original theme. This change in basis, as it were, gives Elgar considerable freedom to depict each person’s foibles in sound. There is considerable variety to the variations, and the orchestration is consistently inventive and delightful. 

The symphony played with great confidence and gusto, easily switching from grim foreboding to fragile delicacy. The clarinet, viola and cello solos were outstanding, and Ferrandis’s conducting was both steady and fluid throughout. He would have done better to program the gloomy Rachmaninoff first and the shimmering Elgar last, so everyone could leave with a smile on their face instead of a furrowed brow.

November 8, 2016: Orion Weiss Takes Bartók at the Speed of Light

By: , November 8, 2016 - Steve Osborn, Classical Voice

Gifted pianists are everywhere these days, but few have the prodigious speed, stamina, and musicality of Orion Weiss. He exhibited all these qualities in a memorable rendition of Béla Bartók’s second piano concerto with the Santa Rosa Symphony on Nov. 6.

Weiss is a no-nonsense pianist. He seated himself at the piano, gathered his energies, and then launched full bore into the finger-crunching opening runs of the Bartók. He spent nearly all his time staring at his hands, as if guiding his fingers with his eyes rather than his arms. The speed of light seems like the most plausible explanation for the astonishing rapidity and precision of his attack. He was able to control the resonance of the piano with finger speed as much as pedal. In one soft passage, he achieved a haunting effect by striking the keys with so much speed that the notes died away as soon as they sounded.

The Bartók requires a considerable amount of fire from the soloist, an element that Weiss has in profusion. Although he was occasionally drowned out by the winds in the Allegro first movement, he flamed forth time and again, fully igniting near the end with an incredibly fast cadenza.

The entry of muted strings in the second movement brought an entirely new world of sound, to hypnotic and engaging effect. Weiss arose out of this background by producing tremendous volume from his instrument, accented by a beguiling duet with tympani. The tympani featured prominently in the final movement as well, along with a booming bass drum. Much of the movement is given over to a vigorous call-and-response between piano and orchestra. Weiss not only matched each orchestral outburst but kept raising the ante all the way to the transcendent conclusion.

The opener, Liszt’s symphonic poem Les Préludes, stood in pale contrast to Bartók’s masterpiece. Liszt’s orchestration is competent, but his melodies are insipid and his development evanescent. Nonetheless, the orchestra played flawlessly under conductor Bruno Ferrandis, with elegant solos from the French horn and oboe. After an interminable series of runs and arpeggios, the melodic material does coalesce near the end with a striking nine-note descending figure from the brass, impeccably executed by the orchestra’s trumpets and trombones.

Schumann’s second symphony, which occupied the latter part of the program, is a standard of the repertoire, and with good reason. Every movement has striking melodies and motifs, and they flow together with consummate grace. The orchestra played superbly, but special praise must be given to the string section, which negotiated Schumann’s roller-coaster runs with accuracy, unanimity and feeling. Nary a wrong note was to be heard.

In the first movement, Schumann uses a dizzying array of short motifs to build a central theme. Ferrandis brought out the abundant phrases and syncopations, nowhere more so than in an extended passage for strings and clarinet. The violins shone in the second movement, a playful Scherzo that requires nearly perpetual motion, capped off by a bracing sprint to the finish.

The players caught their breath in the subsequent Adagio, a subdued and calming interlude that invites rhythmic flexibility and heartfelt playing, which were everywhere in evidence. Most notable was the beautiful Bach-tinged fugue in the middle.

Ferrandis set a brisk tempo for the Allegro molto finale, resorting sometimes to compact angular motions instead of a more relaxed fluidity. However the beat was conveyed, the musicians kept up the pace while deftly handling repeated sforzandos and orchestral swells. Each idea led seamlessly into the next and propelled toward a triumphant ending — triumphant not only for Schumann, but also for Ferrandis and the Santa Rosa Symphony, which delivered an outstanding performance.

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

November 8, 2016: (Untitled on Keyboard Brilliance)

By: , November 8, 2016 - Paul Hertelendy, artsSF.com

The centerpiece of the latest Santa Rosa Symphony program was one of Bela Bartok's thorniest works, the Piano Concerto No.2, with Music Director Bruno Ferrandis at the helm. Having just recently completed his 10th season here, the French conductor clearly does not shy away from challenging assignments.

The musicians brought off the work's many high-energy intricacies with the fast-flying, nimble pianist Orion Weiss.

Despite the considerable drive (nearly 100 mi. round trip from San Francisco), I relish my trips to the Santa Rosa area. Ferrandis is a meticulous figure leading a solid ensemble in a wood-lined modern hall that is a joy.

Bartok was an ultra-structuralist who embodied neoclassicism to the core; his thematic structure was comparable in complexity to J.S. Bach, though much less melodious, more dissonant and decidedly more contemporary in harmony.

You might have been concerned that Ferrandis never turned to look at Weiss and the keyboard---no doubt because the orchestral parts needed close attention and sharp cuing.

Bartok had been enamored of the timpani; the opus could almost be called concerto for piano and kettle drums. The latter enter again and again, like a thunderstorm, somewhat magnified because of the hall acoustics, and usually right on the beat.

Pianist Weiss was a superior choice for this technically demanding concerto. He not only managed the rapid-fire filigree of this work, which the composer himself had introduced in 1933, but showed a lot of subtlety in dynamics, never content just to pound out the thousands of notes on the page.

Overall, the hall acoustics at Weill Hall are admirable, with a welcome sonic afterglow. In the balcony, you get fine ensemble blending of the whole orchestra, If instead you sit downstairs closeup, the sound is stronger, and the individual musicians are readily recognizable. Each has its appeal.

Liszt's “Les preludes,” opened the program. For many years after World War Two, groups on both sides of the Atlantic avoided playing it, as the brass-chorale theme had been used countless times by the Nazis for their propaganda-bulletin broadcasts. The association was so distasteful that only belatedly and gradually has this rousing romantic piece returned to orchestral-concert repertoire---as well it should, since it is arguably Liszt's finest orchestral piece, written a century before the war by a composer who was not even German. The SRS' horn section was resplendent.

The Nov. 5 concert concluded with Schumann's Symphony No. 2, firmly rendered, full of the marches and German-romantic touches that Schumann favored and savored. His most sensitive moments come to life in the much lighter touch of the slow movement, where the lyricism is paramount, as produced by oboe soloist Laura Reynolds and cohorts in the winds.

CHANGING OF THE GUARD---This is Ferrandis' final season as music director. Next season concerts feature five candidates for his job, each leading a separate concert set: Francesco Lecce-Chong, Mei-Ann Chen, Andrew Grams, Graeme Jenkins and Michael Christie. The 6th and 7th concert set will be led by Ferrandis.

November 6, 2016: Santa Rosa Symphony offer up stars of the keyboard

By: , November 6, 2016 - Diane Peterson, Press Democrat

The Santa Rosa Symphony led by Music Director Bruno Ferrandis offered up a colorful trio of works by three, virtuoso pianists Saturday night at the Green Music Center’s Weill Hall, including the rarely heard and devilishly difficult Bartok Piano Concerto No. 2 performed by American pianist Orion Weiss.

Weiss, who will turn 35 on Tuesday, was named after the most visible constellation in the Northern hemisphere’s winter sky. A graduate of Juilliard who studied with pianist Emanuel Ax, Weiss brought plenty of star power to bear on the Bartok, which is so challenging that some flatly refuse to play it. British pianist Andras Schiff once called it a “finger-buster,” and Israeli-American pianist Yefim Bronfman injured himself a few times on its thornier passages.

With Weill Hall lit up ominously in red and pre-concert lecturer Kayleen Asbo warning us to “look out for the bloody keyboard,” it was a relief when Weiss managed to survive the rhythmic complexity and relentless brutality of the 28-minute concerto, written by the famous Hungarian composer in 1931.

Weiss played the keyboard work brilliantly, with machine-gun clarity. Amazingly, he also performed it from memory. Under Ferrandis’ baton, the orchestra matched him beat by angular beat, rhythm by fractured rhythm, marching through the controlled chaos of the first and third movements with clear-eyed precision.

But the intensity of the music, while underlining the percussive power of the piano, did not always transcend the notes and emerge with the exuberance and joy one would expect.

Part of the problem, at least from my seat, was that the piano was often difficult to hear, especially in the first movement, a Stravinsky-like romp punctuated by racing octave scales and a crazed cadenza. There are just so many notes — the pianist has only 23 measures of rest — that you hardly notice the strings are just sitting silently, while the rest of the orchestra provides the accompaniment.

The elegiac adagio, written in the spirit of Bartok’s eerie night music, brought a mesmerizing reprieve from the motoric energy of the first movement, with the strings adding a lush, hushed, nearly transparent sound.

The concerto concluded with another restless folk dance, tossing up recycled themes from the first movement and interjecting pointed dialogue between piano, brass and percussion. The complex rondo, driven to a climactic conclusion, brought the audience immediately to its feet.

While the Bartok was intellectually provocative, the other two works eclipsed it in terms of sheer emotion. They also provided a handy vehicle for the orchestra’s musicians to shine with nuanced playing and solos.

The program opened with Hungarian composer Franz Lizst’s “Les Préludes,” a symphonic poem completed in 1854 as a paean to nature. Lizst created the new musical form to reconcile poetry with music, and this particular example — full of far-off horn calls, mournful woodwinds and swirling strings — evokes the serenity of the countryside, broken only by a nerve-tingling storm that rises and falls in intensity, thanks to evocative orchestration for timpani and brass.

Ferrandis rounded out the program with another literary composer, Robert Schumann, whose father was a bookseller. Schumann’s Symphony No. 2, written in 1846, took the audience on an uplifting journey, from the solemn brass fanfare of the first movement, reminiscent of a Bach chorale, to the triumphant finale, with its nod to Beethoven’s 9th symphony.

Written in the sunny key of C major, the work also includes a spirited scherzo of perpetual motion, pulled off with amazing accuracy and endurance by the strings. The slow movement took a soulful dip into C minor, spinning out sublime melodies full of yearning and colorful solos executed by woodwinds and horns.

The clouds parted in the final movement, with the ensemble carefully building to the joyful conclusion, executing clear, dotted rhythms and triplets along with nicely nuanced dynamics. It was a memorable trip from darkness to light, worth every finger-numbing note.

The Santa Rosa 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-$80. santarosasymphony.com.

Staff writer Diane Peterson can be reached at 707-521-5287 or diane.peterson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @dianepete56.

October 13, 2016: Duet for Flute and Baton

By: Steve Osborn, October 13, 2016 - Classical Sonoma

Sustain, sustain, sustain! That exhortation often passes the lips of music teachers, and their students’ success is often judged by how well they master the concept. Two students who mastered it to perfection are Bruno and Jean Ferrandis, the “Brothers in Black” who led and soloed in the Santa Rosa Symphony’s October opening set of concerts in Weill Hall. 

The basic idea of sustain is to play all the way through the note and the phrase, never letting the energy peter out. This quality is nowhere more necessary than in wind instruments, where the player has to control intake and expenditure of breath without running out of air or gasping for more. Jean Ferrandis, the flute soloist for his brother’s orchestra, proved himself a master of sustain in two radically different flute concertos by Bernstein and Mozart, along with a breathtaking encore by Debussy. 

Not to be outdone, brother Bruno coaxed an equal level of sustain from his wonderful orchestra, which kept driving forward through pieces fast and slow, never letting their intensity falter. Each piece offered its own gripping narrative, from the haunting beginning of Britten’s “Four Sea Interludes” to the propulsive climax of Beethoven’s Eighth Symphony. 

Soloist and orchestra were equally praiseworthy, but let’s begin with Jean, who opened with a heartfelt rendition of “Halil,” Bernstein’s nocturne for flute and small orchestra. He immediately displayed a beautiful, even sound that carried to the farthest reaches of the balcony, where music reviewers tend to sit. He sustained his notes well beyond the limits of ordinary breath without a hint of effort or strain. 

“Halil” itself is somewhat amorphous, with a luxuriant opening melody that passes back and forth between the soloist, the principal flutist (Kathleen Lane Reynolds), the concertmaster (Joseph Edelberg) and principal violist (Elizabeth Prior). This dialogue transforms into a Broadway-style dance and is then replaced by a lengthy section where the soloist is accompanied only by percussion. Here Jean shone, holding the audience in rapt silence as he wove in and out of the percussive backdrop. The piece finally reverts to the opening melody, repeatedly employing a descending six-note phrase, and it ends with a long note from the flute, which Jean stretched to the limit. 

In “Halil,” Jean proved a master of atmospherics, but in Mozart’s G Major flute concerto (K. 313) he displayed an equal mastery of relaxed precision. In Mozart the soloist is fully exposed, and even the slightest misstep can turn into a tumble. Jean negotiated Mozart’s trickiest passages with ease, dancing along with a feathery tread. His phrasing in the beautiful second movement was exquisite, matched only by his virtuosity in the third. 

After a well-deserved standing ovation, Jean encored with Debussy’s “Syrinx” for solo flute, a brilliant showcase for his breath control and tone. After all his work with the orchestra, it was a revelation to hear him all alone. If anything, his sound was even more gorgeous than before. 

Following his brother was no easy task, but Bruno displayed his own mastery of conducting sustain in a riveting performance of Beethoven’s eighth symphony. The orchestra produced a tight, unified sound from the beginning, with the strings playing unerringly in the fastest passages. The precision was particularly evident in the sprightly second movement, where the orchestra sounded at times like a string quartet. The minuet third movement tempo was a bit too deliberate, but the French horn duo over cello arpeggios was delightful. The real fireworks occurred in the finale, which builds up bit by bit to a stunning climax. Here the sound was transparent, with no mud to cloud the headlong rush to the end. 

The Beethoven was great, but the piece that opened the program, Britten’s “Four Sea Interludes,” was every bit its equal. Taken from his 1945 opera “Peter Grimes,” the interludes portray the sea in its multiple moods and rages. The first interlude begins with a high phrase in the violins that features a sustained trill. The unity of the strings here was impressive, and it set the stage for a sensitive, intricate performance of Britten’s majestic score. 

Conductor and players handled the dense orchestration with ease and grace. Many passages stood out: the handoffs of the compelling staccato theme from woodwinds to strings to brass; the insistent plucking of the harp; the compelling force of the kettledrums. All these and more combined for a fiery and dramatic performance that left one wishing to hear the entire opera, arguably Britten’s greatest work. 

October 10, 2016: Jean Ferrandis with Santa Rosa Symphony: Storms of the Upper Air

By: Adam Broner, October 10, 2016 - Piedmont Post

Bruno Ferrandis opened his final year with the Santa Rosa Symphony this past weekend in an ambitious program. The last ten years under his baton have been exhilarating, and his flamboyant conducting will be missed. But a search for his replacement as Artistic Director has already begun, and next year should be a lot of fun as five different conductors do their best to wow the savvy North Bay audience.

Monday evening’s program, Oct 10, in Weill Hall at Sonoma State featured the talents of his brother, flutist Jean Ferrandis, and he was extraordinary.

But before his brother’s entrance, Bruno stretched the orchestra in an intensely atmospheric tone poem, Benjamin Britten’s Four Sea Interludes. This was music that Britten had put together out of his opera, Peter Grimes, and the music was as yearning and contradictory as the opera is grimly compelling.Bruno Ferrandis-photo by Susan and Neil Silverman

In concert with the flute theme of the evening, Interludes begins with long-held flute notes in unison with high violins, a single sound as plaintive as a sea gull on a cold British coast. These were answered by the lowing of horns and bass trombone.

This felt like Nature in all Her Awful Grandeur, the high thin winds, the clarinet-quick scrabble of sand crabs, the rhythmic billowing of breakers, the stillness of the sea. There were inexplicable points of brightness with sharp wood blocks and marimba, and a call-and-response of clarinet and horns, transforming that early morning feeling into the hurly-burly of midday.

And then Ferrandis gathered his forces for a storm, with low timpani sounding as hushed and dramatic, and a chromatic step by step climb of big brass. Afterwards, soft cymbal and harp notes divided the silence like stars after the storm. The conducting was exacting, almost joyful in its tension.

The two Ferrandis brothers came out to sustained applause, and then swept into an unusual work, Leonard Bernstein’s Halil: Nocturne for Flute and Small Orchestra. This was late Bernstein, an experiment in tone rows that still had room for lyricism and touches of jazz.  Halil is the Hebrew word for a shepherd’s pipe, and as modern as the work was, there remains the lively feeling of that ancient instrument. And Bernstein did not let it stand on its own, but shadowed it with the warmth of low alto flute, and high piccolo echoed its phrases, played respectively by Kathleen Lane Reynolds and Stacey Pelinka. Those two had already distinguished themselves in the Britten.

Jean was warm, bright and unforced, linking Bernstein’s curious intervals into miles of scenic road, while the orchestra exercised lovely color and restraint. In many of his moments he was accompanied by percussion, with one lovely cadenza arrayed against soft kettle drum.

He returned after intermission in Mozart’s Concerto No. 1 in G Major for Flute and Orchestra, and the two works could not have been more different. Mozart seems to understand the flute better than Bernstein, and here Jean was able to display its rich bottom and pure upper ranges, with the whole full of eye-popping cadenzas… and lyricism! Magical!

Jean FerrandisAfter the first movement the audience erupted into spontaneous applause (as they would have in Mozart’s day, instead of holding their applause to the end). The Adagio felt more like Handel, with limpid strings and expressive horns – and those horns were tight throughout, led by Meredith Brown and Alex Camphouse, regulars of the Berkeley and Oakland Symphonies. Jean finished with a flute cadenza full of poise and snap.

He returned after several bows and explained that he was going to do an encore. “Tomorrow we are taking plane [back to France]. I know him [Bruno] since he was [this high]. I could play Bach, but I want to improvise on ‘Bruno.’ The theme is [and he played five notes spelling out his brother’s name].”

It was an astonishing moment, lyrical and liquid, with notes falling like curtains of raindrops, and the whole improvised on the spot with the ‘theme’ popping out unexpectedly. The audience stood back up and applauded long.

The younger Ferrandis retook the stage to lead Beethoven’s good-natured Symphony No. 8 in F Major, which I recently heard in the East Bay. This orchestra’s professional core was exceptionally tight, and better than most orchestras. But it was the end of a long evening and the energy was beginning to run out. If this were first on the program, they would have been selling the CD’s.

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