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Symphony
SONIC SPLASH AND ENSEMBLE DELICACY AT SO CO PHIL CONCERT
by Terry McNeill
Saturday, November 18, 2017
Franck’s wonderful D Minor Symphony is a rarity on today’s concert programs, and I can’t remember a North Bay performance in many years from any of the six resident area orchestras. So it was good to see the Sonoma County Philharmonic feature it in their Nov. 18 and 19 concerts at Santa Rosa High S...
Chamber
TETZLAFF QUARTET'S MASTERY IN MOZART AND SCHUBERT
by Terry McNeill
Saturday, November 11, 2017
German violin virtuoso Christian Tetzlaff presented a critically successful Weill Hall recital Feb. 18, and returned to the same venue Nov. 11 with his admirable Tetzlaff Quartet in a program of Berg, Schubert and Mozart. Clarity of ensemble has always been a hallmark of this Quartet, and contrapun...
Chamber
RAVISHING SHORT OPERAS FROM FRENCH TROUPE IN WEILL
by Terry McNeill
Friday, November 10, 2017
Standard Weill Hall fall and winter classical programs are pretty routine – symphonic music, chamber, solo recitals – so it was a rare treat Nov. 10 when just two works from the 17th century were gloriously presented. With such specialized compositions, period performers with commanding authenticit...
Symphony
MEI-ANN CHEN PROVES A WORTHY CONTENDER FOR SANTA ROSA SYMPHONY CONDUCTING POST
by Steve Osborn
Sunday, November 05, 2017
These days the focus of Santa Rosa Symphony concerts is as much on the conductor candidates as on the soloists. This past weekend’s concerts featured the second of those candidates, Mei-Ann Chen, along with pianist Nareh Arghamanyan, each of whom cut an imposing figure on the stage. Chen is diminut...
Symphony
TO RUSSIA WITH BRILLIANCE
by Terry McNeill
Friday, November 03, 2017
Russian pianist Denis Matsuev’s high velocity and frequently slam-bang virtuosity came to the Green Music Center last year with a thrilling and equally perplexing solo performance. So many in Weill Nov. 3 were interested to hear if his pianistic style would mesh well in a concerto, and with a fine ...
Symphony
THUNDEROUS TCHAIKOVSKY FOURTH OPENS MARIN SYMPHONY SEASON
by Terry McNeill
Tuesday, October 31, 2017
North Coast weather is turning cool and the nights longer, ideal for Tchaikovsky’s big boned symphonies. The Santa Rosa Symphony recently programmed the Fourth (F Minor Symphony) as did the San Francisco Symphony. Norman Gamboa’s Sonoma County Philharmonic just played the Tchaikovsky First, forgoi...
Recital
RESPIGHI'S PUNGENT SONATA HIGHLIGHTS KENNEY-GUTMAN RECITAL
by Terry McNeill
Sunday, October 29, 2017
Respighi’s B Minor Violin Sonata seems never to gain conventional repertoire status. Perhaps the great Heifetz recording is intimidating, and I can recall over many years just two local performances: Jason Todorov and William Corbett-Jones years go in Newman, and a titanic reading in March by Anne S...
Chamber
MIRÓ QUARTET AND JEFFERY KAHANE PROVIDE MUSICAL RELIEF FOR FIRE-RAVAGED SONOMA COUNTY
by Steve Osborn
Saturday, October 28, 2017
Sonoma County’s Green Music Center has stood silent but unscathed the past few weeks as the county begins to recover from the devastating fires that began on the evening of October 8, only a few hours after a Santa Rosa Symphony concert in the Music Center. Since then, concerts by the Symphony, the ...
Symphony
CONDUCTOR PLAYOFFS BEGIN IN SANTA ROSA
by Steve Osborn
Sunday, October 08, 2017
The Santa Rosa Symphony is calling 2017-18 “a choice season” because the next few months offer the audience and the symphony’s board of directors a chance to choose a new conductor from a pool of five candidates. Each candidate will lead a three-concert weekend set this fall and winter, with a final...
Recital
PIANISTIC COMMAND IN SCHROEDER RECITAL
by Lee Ormasa
Sunday, October 08, 2017
Nikolay Khozyainov’s Oct. 8 debut at the Green Music Center’s Schroeder Hall was one of those rare moments in a young artist’s career when a performance approaches perfection. From the opening notes of Beethoven’s A-Flat Major Sonata (Op. 110) through a delightful recital ending transcription, the ...
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.