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MASKED SANTA ROSA SYMPHONY CARRIES ON BRILLIANTLY
by Steve Osborn
Sunday, November 15, 2020
In some ways the Santa Rosa Symphony’s Nov. 15 concert on YouTube resembled a Conceptual Art performance from the 1970s. On display were about 30 masked orchestral musicians playing six feet apart from each other on stage, some of them separated by plexiglass barriers. In the 1970s, the concept behi...
Chamber
SPLENDID STRINGS IN A SUNLIT GARDEN
by Abby Wasserman
Sunday, November 1, 2020
A sun-drenched autumn afternoon, a Marin County garden and six superb string players from the Santa Rosa Symphony were manna from heaven to a pandemic-weary audience starved for live music. The sextet of Santa Rosa Symphony musicians performed to a small group of 20 Nov. 1, the day after Halloween....
Chamber
EXAMPLARY QUARTET PLAYING IN MARIN GARDEN CONCERT
by Terry McNeill
Thursday, October 22, 2020
Taped video concerts have pretty much dominated the recent fare for classical music fans, but sporadic live music making can still be found in the North Bay with outdoor chamber music. Of course with the obligatory social distancing and often decorative facial masks. Four San Francisco Opera Orc...
Chamber
VIDEO CHAMBER MUSIC FROM LINCOLN CENTER IN GREEN'S BROADCAST
by Terry McNeill
Saturday, October 17, 2020
Along with hosting its resident the Santa Rosa Symphony, Weill Hall has contracted to produce sporadic virtual programs of classical music, and began Oct. 17 with a charming three-part concert from the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center in New York. Hosted with comely introductions by CMSLC di...
Symphony
THRILLING SANTA ROSA SYMPHONY PERFORMANCE IN AN EMPTY WEILL HALL
by Steve Osborn
Sunday, October 11, 2020
Viewers of the Santa Rosa Symphony’s inaugural socially distanced YouTube concert on Oct. 11 could be forgiven for thinking they had stumbled upon a performance of Verdi’s “Un Ballo in Maschera” (A Masked Ball), given that the string players in the opening shot all wore black masks. The sole excepti...
Symphony
BROWN VIDEO GALA LAUNCHES SANTA ROSA SYMPHONY SEASON
by Terry McNeill
Saturday, September 12, 2020
Similar to many North Coast musical organizations the Santa Rosa Symphony has scheduled a series of virtual concerts on video, spotlighting sections of the orchestra and the exuberant activities of its conductor Francesco Lecce-Chong. However, as an introduction to the season, a Sept. 12 gala vide...
SONGS AND ECHOES OF HOME IN AIZURI QUARTET CONCERT
by Abby Wasserman
Sunday, March 8, 2020
From the first richly layered harmonies of Dvořák’s Cypresses, the Aizuri Quartet held the March 8th audience at Mt. Tamalpais Methodist Church in thrall. The church was more than half full, a good crowd considering present anxiety about the spread of the coronavirus. Taking precautions, the M...
COLORFUL BORN BACH AT AGAVE BAROQUE'S SCHROEDER HALL CONCERT
by Sonia Morse Tubridy
Friday, February 28, 2020
Bach’s obituary records that “Johann Sebastian Bach belongs to a family that seems to have received a love and aptitude for music as a gift of Nature to all its members in common.” Agave Baroque presented their Feb. 28 concert, Born Bach, as a partial musical story of several generations in this rem...
ECLECTIC VIOLIN AND PIANO WORKS IN VIRTUOSIC MILL VALLEY RECITAL
by Abby Wasserman
Sunday, February 23, 2020
Blending virtuosity with sublime artistry, violinist Alexander Sitkovetsky and pianist Wu Qian gave the Mill Valley Chamber Music Society audience many thrills February 23, performing four muscular and soulful works by four composers from four countries: de Falla, Schumann, Stravinsky, and Grieg. T...
PREMIER OF KAIZEN AND DRAMATIC MOZART HIGHLIGHT ECHO CHAMBER CONCERT
by Abby Wasserman
Sunday, February 16, 2020
As concertgoers took their seats in San Anselmo’s First Presbyterian Church for ECHO Chamber Orchestra’s February 16 program, they were surprised to see at center stage two bass drums, a tom-tom, bongos, high hat and cymbals. It was the occasion of the world premiere of "Kaizen," composed and perf...
CHAMBER REVIEW
SRJC Chamber Concerts / Friday, January 8, 2010
Steven Isserlis, cello, and Kirill Gerstein, piano

Steven Isserlis

STIRRED, NOT SHAKEN

by Steve Osborn
Friday, January 8, 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.