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Symphony
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

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.