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HEROIC EFFORT FROM THE SANTA ROSA SYMPHONY
by Steve Osborn
Sunday, December 13, 2020
December 13 was a rainy day, perfect for huddling indoors and watching a prerecorded “live” performance by the Santa Rosa Symphony. The program was expansive, with music from the 18th through 21st centuries, and the mood was festive, in keeping with the holiday season. There was something in the fea...
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...
SYMPHONY REVIEW

Soprano Christina Major

HER CUP RUNNETH OVER

by Steve Osborn
Monday, December 3, 2012

For its Dec. 3 “Titans of Opera” concert at the Green Music Center in Rohnert Park, the Santa Rosa Symphony assembled a titanic cast of players, including a full orchestra, an additional contingent of brass, woodwind and student players, an 80-voice chorus, and two soloists. The concert was long and the pieces many, but in the end, a solitary musician stole the show: the rising American soprano Christina Major.

If your name is your destiny, this powerful singer will have a major career. She brings a remarkable collection of skills to the task at hand: a powerful voice, excellent diction, a well-controlled vibrato, a stratospheric range, an expressive delivery and an imposing stage presence. All she needs is time and perhaps a lucky break before she ascends to Bayreuth or La Scala.

Those two opera houses are closely identified with the evening’s featured composers: Wagner and Verdi, in that order. The first half was entirely devoted to orchestral interludes from Wagner’s “Ring” cycle, and the second half to overtures, choruses and arias from selected Verdi operas. The combination was revelatory. Wagner, with his recurring leitmotifs and painterly orchestration, is a delight for the mind, whereas Verdi’s indelible melodies and ineluctable narratives go straight to the heart.

In the Wagner half of the concert, Maestro Bruno Ferrandis conveyed with his baton that the audience was not to applaud between pieces, thereby transforming the selections into a seven-movement “Ring Cycle suite,” with one interlude from Das Rheingold, two from Die Walküre, one from Siegfried, and three from Götterdämmerung. Listeners without the stamina or inclination to endure all four operas could get a good idea of their essence just by listening to these well-chosen excerpts.

The virtual suite began with the “Descent to Nibelheim” from Das Rheingold, which features murmuring strings and an extended crescendo that climaxes with imaginary dwarf blacksmiths pounding at anvils. From my wall-hugging side seat on the second floor of the music center, I couldn’t actually see the percussionists enacting the role of blacksmiths, but the effect was nonetheless riveting.

Next up was the famous “Ride of the Valkyries” from Die Walküre, known to millions of filmgoers as the helicopter music for “Apocalypse Now.” Despite the brisk tempi and the thunderous hordes of brass instruments, Ferrandis kept all his forces in check with remarkably spare movements, giving only the slightest indications for repeated crescendos and dramatic entrances. His basic modus operandi continued into “Wotan’s Farewell,” where he coaxed a tremendous sound from the trombones with a few slight motions of his left arm. Less is more.

For all its drama, Wagner’s music is oddly static. He is at his best when evoking a particular scene and then simply lingering, as in the ensuing “Forest Murmurs” from Siegfried. Here the lower strings offered a transcendent beginning, repeating a simple eight-note phrase to magical effect. The subsequent cello line was outstanding, as were the extended solos from a trio of veteran woodwind players: clarinetist Mark Wardlaw, flutist Kathleen Reynolds and oboist Laura Reynolds.

With all those imaginary trees, “Forest Murmurs” is inevitably dominated by woodwinds and strings. Likewise, the three concluding interludes from Götterdämmerung are dominated by Siegfried’s emblematic instrument, the French horn. In “Siegfried’s Rheinfahrt,” one of the many horn players (they stretched so far to stage right that I couldn’t see all of them) spirited his instrument offstage and offered a heroic solo. In “Siegfried’s Tod,” the horns, including four so-called Wagner tubas, supplied a brooding and dark rendition of several by now familiar leitmotifs. And in “Brünhilda’s Immolation,” the horns and everyone else within shouting distance joined together to bring the well-played suite to a fiery conclusion.

The Verdi half of the show began with a spirited rendition of the overture to Nabucco, with a handful of student players from the Symphony’s youth orchestra joining their elder colleagues. Nary a wrong note was to be heard, and many hitherto unobservant patrons seemed surprised when the young contingent stood up for a separate bow before leaving the stage.

Young musicians were even more prominent in the Symphony’s Honor Choir, which sat patiently in the Choral Circle behind the stage during the first half. Seemingly composed mostly of Sonoma State students, the choir numbered about 30 sopranos, 30 altos, 20 basses, and a mere six tenors. The university may need to recruit more higher-voiced young men to fill that gap.

Despite the tenor imbalance, the choir performed admirably in both the “Slave Chorus” from Nabucco and the beloved “Anvil Chorus” from Il Trovatore. They sang exuberantly, in excellent time with the orchestra. The a cappella section of the “Anvil Chorus” was especially well done.

Subsequent to those choruses, the star of the show, soprano Christina Major, drifted onto the stage in a floor-length purple dress with many drapes and folds. From the very first note of “Tacea la notte” (also from Il Trovatore), she asserted her irresistible presence. Although poorly lit (she would have benefited from a spotlight), she drew all eyes and ears with her confident high notes, impeccable coloratura and expressive gestures.

Tenor soloist Christopher Bengochea was weak by comparison. Singing “Di quella pira” from the same opera, he was by turns strident and overly dramatic. His middle and lower ranges were acceptable, but his higher notes verged on shouting. He was nonetheless a crowd-pleaser, gesturing repeatedly to the audience.

The “Triumphal March” from Aida followed, matching and even exceeding Wagner in brassiness, and then the tenor aria “Celeste Aida.” Five selections from La Traviata brought the show to a close, beginning with the delicately played Prelude to Act 1 and the fervently sung “Gypsy Chorus.”

The duet “Un di felice” offered a stark contrast between Bengochea’s stridency and Major’s gorgeous tone. Unlike their respective characters (Alfredo and Violetta), the two soloists never blended into a harmonious unit. Far better were the show-stopping “E strano” and “Sempre libera,” which flowed from Major’s lips in a torrent of emotion and bravura singing. Her phrasing was exquisite, and her high notes were superb.

Hoisting full wineglasses, the soloists ended the proceedings with a vivacious rendition of “Libiamo ne’ lieti calici” (drink from the happy goblets). In Major’s case, her cup runneth over.

[Reprinted by permission of San Francisco Classical Voice.]