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Symphony
SO CO PHIL BON VOYAGE CONCERT AN ODYSSEY OF CONTRASTING SOUND
by Terry McNeill
Friday, June 15, 2018
In a splashy bon voyage concert June 15 the Sonoma County Philharmonic Orchestra launched its June 17-25 Costa Rica tour, performing gratis in Santa Rosa’s Jackson Theater the repertoire for tour concerts in San José, Costa Rica’s capital, and in surrounding towns. Conductor Norman Gamboa pr...
Chamber
COMMANDING CHOPIN AND DEBUSSY IN SLV RECITAL
by Terry McNeill
Wednesday, June 06, 2018
Concerts at the classy Spring Lake Village Retirement Home in Santa Rosa have admission limited to residents and a few guests, but the chance to hear a first cabin North Bay pianist June 6 brought a Classical Sonoma reviewer into the audience of 100. The crowd numbers were unusually low due to a ba...
Recital
MUSICAL ALCHEMY INSIDE A HIDDEN GEM
by Kayleen Asbo
Friday, May 25, 2018
The Petaluma Historical Library and Museum is a hidden gem of Sonoma County, a gracious building that is one of Sonoma County’s loveliest venues for chamber music concerts, with a fine period piano particularly suited to Romantic music.  Of the surprisingly large array of festivities there, one of t...
Chamber
FINAL VOM MUSICIANS CONCERT IN SCHROEDER A SCHUBERT DELIGHT
by Terry McNeill
Saturday, May 12, 2018
It's rare to have the opportunity to compare in a short period two performances of the same major Schubert work, in this case the great B Flat Piano Trio, D. 898. The chance came May 12 when the Valley of the Moon Festival musicians played it in Schroeder, just over a month since the Hall’s residen...
Symphony
FERRANDIS BIDS ADIEU WITH MAHLER’S FINAL SYMPHONY
by Steve Osborn
Sunday, May 06, 2018
Sonoma State students in graduation robes posed for pictures and hugged each other at the university’s stone gates on Sunday afternoon, mirroring the prolonged farewells within the university’s Green Music Center, where Bruno Ferrandis bid adieu to the Santa Rosa Symphony after a dozen years at the ...
Symphony
SONIC SPLENDOR AT MARIN SYMPHONY SEASON FINALE
by Abby Wasserman
Tuesday, May 01, 2018
The Marin Symphony Orchestra ended the current season with a flourish, interpreting big and small works by Richard Strauss and Stravinsky. Strauss and Stravinsky were contemporaries for 40 years, but inhabited different worlds. Both composers were affected by cataclysmic changes and war, and musical...
Symphony
ORGAN SYMPHONY IN SSU ORCHESTRA CONCERT IN WEILL
by Terry McNeill
Sunday, April 29, 2018
Though Classical Sonoma seldom reviews student concerts, as ample North Coast concerts keep the staff of 11 reviewers busy. But the chance to hear the Sonoma State University Orchestra tackle St. Saëns’ majestic Organ Symphony April 29 was a rare opportunity and not easily to be missed. Avec l’...
Recital
HEAVENLY SCHUBERT AND DEMONIC CHOPIN
by Terry McNeill
Saturday, April 21, 2018
One of the anomalies in the long ago “Golden Era” of romantic pianism (about 1905 to 1940) is that the virtuoso giants of the time didn’t play Schubert. It took the German pianist Artur Schnabel to bring the beauties of Schuber’s work to the public’s attention, and now they seem to be on almost ever...
Symphony
SPLENDID JUPITER AND ZOOMING CONCERTO AT VALLEJO SYMPHONY SEASON FINALE
by Terry McNeill
Sunday, April 15, 2018
Over the past two years the Vallejo Symphony has made big changes, moving from a stark middle school auditorium to the snazzy remodeled 1911-era downtown Empress Theater, and engaging Marc Taddei as its seventh conductor. April 15 was the season’s final concert of the 86th season. In a programmin...
Chamber
VIRTUOSO CELLO AND GUITAR TRANSCRIPTIONS AT RAC SEBASTOPOL CONCERT
by Terry McNeill
Saturday, April 14, 2018
Listeners and yes even music critics usually prepare for a concert with research, checking recorded performances, looking at artist biographies and even reviewing sheet music. This was a difficult task for the April 14 Redwood Arts Council concert in Sebastopol’s Community Church, as the performers...
CHAMBER REVIEW
SRJC Chamber Concerts / Friday, January 08, 2010
Steven Isserlis, cello, and Kirill Gerstein, piano

Steven Isserlis

STIRRED, NOT SHAKEN

by Steve Osborn
Friday, January 08, 2010


In a 1778 letter to his father, Mozart observed, “It is far easier to play a thing quickly than slowly.” The truth of Mozart’s observation has been borne out repeatedly in the intervening centuries, as virtuosos of all stripes have sought to dazzle their audiences with high-speed prestidigitation, often at the expense of musical beauty.

Not so with cellist Steven Isserlis and pianist Kirill Gerstein, who bewitched a capacity crowd at Santa Rosa’s Newman Auditorium Jan. 8 with a recital dominated by slow playing of maximum expressiveness. To be sure, the two of them often made their fingers fly through the air with the greatest of ease, but what sticks in the mind are their languid strolls through the musical landscape, with repeated stops to smell the roses.

The concert was much anticipated in Santa Rosa, where the memory of Isserlis still lingers several decades after his first concerts here, near the beginning of his storied career. “I have to report a rather ghastly fact,” he told the audience during one of his witty introductions. “The first time I played in Santa Rosa, Kirill had not yet been born.”

Now 51, Isserlis still sports a mop of curly shoulder-length hair that he flings to and fro with reckless abandon. In contrast, the 30-year-old Gerstein is crew cut, and his movements on the piano bench are relatively confined.

This clash of styles and appearance was on full display in the opening piece, the Cello Sonata in C by Benjamin Britten. Protectively enfolding his Stradivarius, Isserlis alternately gazed up in the air to his left or glanced at a score on his right, often flinging his mane while in transit. Meanwhile, his left foot floated up and down, following the center of gravity.

The sound that emerged from all this rocking and swaying was of the utmost delicacy, rendered ever so much more so by Isserlis’s use of gut strings. Instead of the jagged edges of their modern, metallic counterparts, which often make cellos sound like a swarm of bees, gut strings produce a rounded, soothing tone, more akin to a purring cat.

Gerstein contributed to the delicacy by barely grazing the keys of the piano and keeping himself firmly in the background. The net effect of all this quietude was a heightened concentration from the audience, which listened to the two musicians in rapt silence.

The Britten — which most of the audience had probably never heard — proved to be a captivating sonata that makes full use of the cello’s sonic possibilities. There were plenty of ringing pizzicatos, slithering glissandos and spiccato bowings. The real standout, however, was the central movement, marked “Elegia: Lento,” where Isserlis milked each note to its full potential. The tone on his low C string was absolutely gorgeous.

A slow third movement, an Intermezzo, was also the highlight of the next piece, Isserlis’ own transcription of a neglected Schumann violin sonata. The sonata has a long and curious history, well told by Isserlis in the program notes. Suffice to say that the transcription sounds great on a cello, provided it’s played by someone who’s able to traverse the cello’s long fingerboard as if it were a violin’s.

Isserlis proved fully capable of playing his cello like a violin, but all the virtuosic display was mere prelude to the heart-wrenching third movement, which Isserlis sang to perfection. All the musical elements of Schumann’s greatest songs were here, except for the lyrics, which would have been superfluous in any event.

Gerstein was primarily in the shadows during both the Britten and Schumann sonatas, but the Rachmaninoff sonata, which occupied the second half, was a different story. Rather than “cello sonata,” the work might be more accurately termed “concerto for piano with one-person cello orchestra.” Or better yet, “Russian novel for two players.”

One could never accuse Rachmaninoff of brevity, and this sonata, with its meandering rivers of sound, can overmaster all but the most cogent performers. Fortunately, both Isserlis and Gerstein proved up to the task, imparting a rhythmic force and narrative drive that sustained the work from its opening cascades of notes to its majestic ending some forty minutes later.

Gerstein, who just won the coveted $300,000 Gilmore Artist Award, proved particularly adept at dynamics, leading off the sonata with a stunning decrescendo that moved from fortissimo to pianissimo in the flicker of an eyelash. Isserlis was great throughout, but once again his most memorable playing occurred in the slow third movement, where he savored the quality of each note, bright glimmers of warmth in a stark Russian landscape.

The instantaneous standing ovation produced but one encore: Fauré’s “Sicilienne,” a suitably languid piece that calmed the audience. When it was over, Isserlis held his cello upside down to prove that he had poured every last note out of it, at least for this memorable concert.