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Symphony
A SLICE OF HEAVEN FROM THE SANTA ROSA SYMPHONY
by Steve Osborn
Sunday, January 13, 2019
Under its vibrant new music director, Francesco Lecce-Chong, the Santa Rosa Symphony this past Sunday offered a nearly perfect afternoon of Mozart (Symphony No. 40) and Mahler (Symphony No. 4). While the two works share a common digit, the only element uniting them is genius. They made for a dazzlin...
Chamber
A COMPLETE MUSICAL PACKAGE IN ARRON'S OAKMONT RECITAL
by Terry McNeill
Thursday, January 10, 2019
Cellist Edward Arron has been a welcome artist at the Music at Oakmont series, and after his Jan. 10 recital it’s easy to understand his popularity. His artistry is a complete package, with potent instrumental technique wedded to integral musical conceptions. In a nearly flawless concert with pian...
Choral and Vocal
COMPELLING WEILL HALL MESSIAH ORATORIO FROM THE ABS
by Terry McNeill
Saturday, December 15, 2018
Each holiday season when a Classical Sonoma reviewer is assigned to cover a concert with Handel’s seminal Oratorio The Messiah, the question arises about what new commentary can possibly apply to the often performed choral work. Well, if it’s the American Bach Soloists performing the piece, written...
Opera
PURCELL'S DIDO IN YOUTHFUL SSU OPERA
by Abby Wasserman
Wednesday, December 05, 2018
A doomed royal love affair, the theme of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, was brought to lovely life at Sonoma State University Dec. 5 in the school’s Schroeder Hall. Conducted by faculty member Zachary Gordin, who also played continuo, the performance was only the second opera production presented by the...
Symphony
SANTA ROSA SYMPHONY HERALDS THE HOLIDAYS
by Steve Osborn
Sunday, December 02, 2018
Antlers are typical headgear during the holiday season, but the ushers and one bassist at the Santa Rosa Symphony concert on Dec. 2 sported apples atop their heads. The red fruits were festive but perplexing until the orchestra began Rossini’s “William Tell” overture, at which point even the dull-wi...
Symphony
A HERO'S ODYSSEY IN SO CO PHIL CONCERT
by Art Hofmann
Sunday, November 18, 2018
The audience at the Sonoma County Philharmonic’s Nov. 18 concert was warned at the outset that the old Santa Rosa High School auditorium boiler was turned off, and there was a steady eminently audible tone in the hall. Conductor Norman Gamboa said the tone was an A, a high one. But there it was, a...
Recital
MTA BENEFIT CONCERT FEATURES FAURE, DVORAK, JANACEK AND BARBER WORKS
by Terry McNeill
Sunday, November 11, 2018
In a splendid concert Nov. 11 the Music Teachers Association of California, Sonoma County Chapter, presented their sixth annual benefit concert before 40 avid listeners in the Santa Rosa home of Helen Howard and Robert Yeats. Highlights of the performances, involving eight musicians in various perf...
Recital
SERKIN'S SINGULAR MOZART AND BACH PLAYING IN WEILL RECITAL
by Terry McNeill
Friday, November 09, 2018
Returning to Weill Hall following a fire-related recital cancellation in 2017, pianist Peter Serkin programmed just three works in his Nov. 7 concert, three masterworks that challenged both artist and audience alike. It needs to be said at the outset that Mr. Serkin takes a decidedly non-standard a...
Chamber
LUMINOUS FAURE TOPS LINCOLN TRIO'S SPRING LAKE VILLAGE CONCERT
by Terry McNeill
Wednesday, November 07, 2018
Familiarity in chamber music often evokes warm appreciation, and it was thus Nov. 7 when the Chicago-based Lincoln Piano Trio made one of their many Sonoma County appearances, this time on the Spring Lake Village Classical Music Series. Regularly presented by local impresario Robert Hayden, the Lin...
Symphony
PEACE AND LOVE FROM THE SANTA ROSA SYMPHONY
by Steve Osborn
Sunday, November 04, 2018
Before the Santa Rosa Symphony’s Nov. 4 performance of Leonard Bernstein’s “Symphonic Dances from West Side Story,” Symphony CEO Alan Silow took a moment to acknowledge the victims of the Pittsburgh synagogue attack and to observe that music offers a more peaceful and loving view of the world. Mr. ...
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.