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Chamber
BEETHOVEN FEATURED IN SF TRIO'S OCCIDENTAL CONCERT
by Terry McNeill
Sunday, January 19, 2020
Conventional repertoire in uncommonly good performances highlighted the San Francisco Piano Trio’s Jan. 19 concert in the Occidental Center for the Arts. Haydn’s No. 44 Trio (Hob. XV:28) came from late in his long career, when he was in and out of London, and received a sparkling reading that featu...
SIMONE PORTER ASPIRES TO STARDOM WITH SANTA ROSA SYMPHONY
by Steve Osborn
Sunday, January 12, 2020
The Sibelius violin concerto is one of several mountains that violin soloists need to ascend before they can lay claim to stardom. Hundreds make the attempt every year, but only a few reach the top. Simone Porter, who played the concerto with the Santa Rosa Symphony on Sunday afternoon, got close bu...
Choral and Vocal
ORPHEUS OF AMSTERDAM'S MUSIC IN SCHROEDER ORGAN CHORAL CONCERT
by Sonia Morse Tubridy
Friday, January 10, 2020
“All over the map.” Sonoma Bach, directed by Bob Worth, has taken its audiences this season on journeys through many centuries and many lands. The programming is fresh and intriguing and the performers varied and creators of beauty and interest. The January 10 program was centered on organ works by...
Choral and Vocal
OLD NORTH GERMAN CAROLS IN SONOMA BACH'S SCHROEDER CONCERT
by Sonia Morse Tubridy
Sunday, December 15, 2019
“Cast off all sorrows…also dance in heavenly fashion.” A volume called Piae Cantiones was printed in 1582 in North Germany, lively songs going back to the 14th century, and this treasure trove provided material for numerous composers to arrange Christmas carols over following generations, from simp...
Symphony
EVERLASTING LIGHT AT SANTA ROSA SYMPHONY
by Steve Osborn
Monday, December 09, 2019
The Mozart Requiem includes four intermittent vocal soloists, but the real star is the choir, which is featured in almost every movement. That stardom shone bright at the Santa Rosa Symphony’s memorable Requiem performance on Monday night. The soloists were good, but the choir was superb. Located wi...
Symphony
UNFINISHED AND FINNISH
by Terry McNeill
Sunday, December 08, 2019
Having a new resident conductor on the podium for the Ukiah Symphony was an attractive invitation for a long-delayed visit to Mendocino College’s Center Theater Dec. 8. The insouciant Les Pfutzenreuter recently retired after decades of conducting the ensemble, replaced by Phillip Lenberg who also j...
Choral and Vocal
PRAERTORIUS IN RENAISSANCE GLORY FROM SONOMA BACH
by Sonia Morse Tubridy
Saturday, November 16, 2019
Sonoma Bach Choir, in collaboration with Barefoot All-Stars Viol Consort and The Whole Noyse Brass Ensemble, presented “Sing Glorious Praetorius!” November 16 to an almost full Schroeder Hall at the Green Music Center. The Soloists were soprano Dianna Morgan, Christopher Fritzsche, (countertenor), m...
Symphony
ECLECTIC INSTRUMENTAL EXCITEMENT IN SO CO PHIL CONCERT IN JACKSON
by Terry McNeill
Saturday, November 16, 2019
Beginning with a scintillating reading of Rossini’s Overture to the Opera “Semiramide,” the Sonoma County Philharmonic performed a splendid program Nov. 16 in the Jackson Theater, and featured two additional works, one showcasing the winner of the San Francisco Conservatory’s Young Artist Award. It...
Chamber
SPIRITUAL LATE BEETHOVEN QUARTET HIGHLIGHTS MILL VALLEY CHAMBER CONCERT
by Abby Wasserman
Sunday, November 10, 2019
Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 14 in C-sharp minor, Op. 131, called “unparalleled in its inexhaustibility” by critic Thomas May, is a daunting challenge. Orchestral in concept, filled with wit and charm, melancholy and fury, it almost overwhelms listeners. Playing the frenetic Scherzo, a viol...
Symphony
MUSICAL EXTRAVAGANCE IN UNIQUE SRS CONCERT IN WEILL HALL
by Terry McNeill
Monday, November 04, 2019
It was a concert full of surprises Nov. 4 as the Santa Rosa Symphony responded to the area’s wild fires and evacuations with challenging, songful and somewhat unique music in Weill Hall. The last of a three-concert series titled "Master of the Modern Banjo" is reviewed here. The evening began with...
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.