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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

Vilnius String Quartet

THE LITHUANIANS HAVE LANDED

by Steve Osborn
Saturday, January 19, 2008

Between Beethoven and Brahms lurks--Onute Narbutaite. At least that's the version of music history proposed by the Vilnius String Quartet at their sold-out concert in the Occidental Community Church on Jan. 19. One hears Beethoven and Brahms all the time, but Narbutaite--a contemporary female Lithuanian composer--is a rarity in American concert halls. If the performance by her fellow Lithuanians is any indication, she deserves more frequent hearing.

Born in 1956, Narbutaite began composing as a teenager. She attended the Lithuanian State Conservatory and has made her living as a freelance composer in Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital, since 1982. "Open the Gates of Oblivion," performed to near-perfection by the Vilnius Quartet, comes from early in her career, when she was identified with a group of "neo-romantic" composers in Lithuania and elsewhere. Forsaking both serialism and minimalism, "Open the Gates of Oblivion" focuses on tone, atmosphere, and contemplation.

The one-movement, 15-minute work begins with a plucking cello, followed by high notes from the first violin, glissandos from the second, and a drone note from the viola. Having established distinct roles for each instrument, the work evolves slowly, driven by subtle changes in the viola drone. Each modulation reveals a new sonic figure, more like a painting or sculpture than a musical narrative. Within each figure, the music goes around and around, its motion primarily circular rather than linear.

And what music it was! The Vilnius played Narbutaite's score with passion, understanding, and finesse. From the cello's resonant opening notes, to the viola's steady beat, to the piercing tones and eerie slides from the violins, every aspect of the performance was well controlled and detailed. The only flaw was outside the musicians' control: one of the violist's strings broke during a particularly intense section near the end of the piece, and he had to rush from the stage in search of another. Upon his return, the quartet plunged right back in where they had left off, instantly regaining their musical intensity.

In a world of sound-alike quartets, it's a rare treat to hear contemporary works played by musicians who actually know the composer and can work with him or her to refine the performance. For the other two works on the program, however, the Vilnius reverted to the more typical mode of interpreting the composers of the past, none of whom can speak from the grave. They succeeded brilliantly with Beethoven, but their Brahms left something to be desired.

Beethoven's third quartet, which opened the evening, is an utter delight, and the Vilnius clearly enjoyed performing it. One imagines they have done so many times before. Founded in 1965, the quartet still retains its original first violinist, Audrone Vainiunaite, daughter of a Lithuanian composer. The other members, all men, are more recent arrivals, but they played as if they had all been together since Day One.

The opening movement of the Beethoven was luxuriant and unhurried, with rhythmic flexibility. Vainunaite's piercing tone was well suited to her virtuosic part, and the other instruments provided both solidity and depth. The inner voices were particularly distinctive in the lush second movement, which provides each instrument with a share of the limelight. The real fireworks, however, came in the last movement, with its strong accents and blistering pace. Despite a few intonation problems from Vainunaite, the effect was mesmerizing. There was real excitement in the dynamic contrasts, and the rollicking tempo made one want to dance. At the conclusion, several audience members stood to applaud, a custom usually reserved for the concluding work of the night.

After the Narbutaite and a lengthy intermission, the Vilnius returned to the stage to perform Brahms' second quartet, in A minor. For whatever reason, their previous intensity was lacking, and their performance was somewhat muddled. Unlike Beethoven, Brahms is not particularly well known for his string quartets, of which he published only three after destroying many failed efforts. One of the reasons for Brahms's own misgivings about his quartets may be related to his blending of the instruments, which is more orchestral than chamber. Unlike Beethoven, he fails to give each instrument a distinctive voice, and the textures tend to get murky.

The challenge in performing Brahms's string quartets is to pull the themes out of the dense thicket of sound. Although the Vilnius made a valiant effort, Vainunaite's tone and vibrato weren't quite up to the task. The notes were all there, but the certitude and clarity were lacking. Nonetheless, the audience responded with warm applause.

The concert concluded with a sparkling encore, a tarantella by the 20th-century Czech composer Erwin Schulhoff, whose music is finally coming into its own after years of obscurity. Leaving the gravitas of Brahms far behind, the Vilnius performed the tarantella, a swirling southern Italian dance, with vigor and grace. Their final standing ovation was well deserved.