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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...
SYMPHONY REVIEW
San Francisco Symphony / Thursday, May 23, 2013
David Robertson, conductor. Marc-Andre Hamelin, piano

Pianist Marc-Andre Hamelin

FIVE FINGERS WITH THE STRENGTH OF TEN

by Steve Osborn
Thursday, May 23, 2013

"My name is David, and I'm going to be your conductor for this evening." With that corny but amusing opening line, guest conductor David Robertson introduced himself and the San Francisco Symphony to a less than full house at the Green Music Center on May 23. It was hard to understand why the place wasn't packed. The soloist, Marc-Andre Hamelin, is one of the top pianists in the world, and the program featured Gershwin's ever-popular "Rhapsody in Blue," along with two crowd-pleasers from Ravel: the Concerto for the Left Hand and "La Valse."

Maybe the opening piece, Elliott Carter's "Variations for Orchestra," is what kept them away. Written in 1955, the variations have all the characteristics of Carter's mature style: short, seemingly disconnected phrases; an abundance of dissonance; lack of anything hummable. Fifty years ago, those aspects may have turned off audiences, but these days they sound relatively tame. In truth, the performance on this occasion was lush, fluid and immensely rewarding.

Mr. Robertson clearly likes Carter, and he compared the composer's technique to the train of thought. "It's like the way we think," he said in his introduction: "Ideas jump off." As evidenced by the program notes, musicologists can have a field day picking apart Carter's formal structures, but the real strength of the piece lies with its impression on the listener. If your ears are open, there's a lot to hear. Beginning with short, pithy phrases from throughout the orchestra, the sound congeals into a kind of jagged unanimity, with notes scattered across several octaves at once.

Mr. Robertson kept all these disparate elements well under control, moving fluidly from one section to the next, occasionally using sweeping gestures to propel the Symphony forward. By the last of nine variations a palpable tension had been established, wonderfully resolved in the Allegro molto conclusion, complete with a fanfare from the brass and timpani.

After respectful applause and subsequent stage entry of a piano, Mr. Hamelin appeared with both arms seemingly intact to play Ravel's Concerto for the Left Hand. The pianist alternately rested his right hand on his right knee or anchored it on the bench for particularly vigorous passages. He needed all the anchoring he could get, for his left hand shortly displayed itself as an anatomic marvel of tremendous power and agility. Leaning heavily on the pedal, he generated a phenomenal sound, more than equal to the Symphony's exertions.

Mr. Hamelin swayed gently with eyes closed as he played, seemingly inhabiting the music. On occasion he arched his fingers into a kind of claw and descended upon the keyboard like a diving falcon, ensnaring his prey with pinpoint accuracy. The melodies rang out and the articulation was superb. Though limited to only five digits, he wrapped the entire auditorium in a gossamer veil of sound. Most important, he etched the Ravel concerto, which can often seem muddy, into a surprisingly well-defined, coherent whole. It's not one of the great concertos, but it's close.

After intermission, the 52-year old Canadian artist returned to play "Rhapsody in Blue," which began with a startlingly good clarinet solo and equally great contributions from the trumpets. After the raucous orchestral buildup, Hamelin--using both hands--calmed everyone down with a delicate solo played with the utmost tenderness. As with the Ravel, he so inhabited the music that he gave the impression that he was making it up as he went along. Each phrase led inexorably into the next in a truly bewitching performance.

The effect of Hamelin's and the Symphony's playing was like hearing "Rhapsody in Blue" for the first time. All those United Airlines commercials were purged from the brain, replaced by a work of undeniable power and originality. The Rhapsody may be "in blue," but this performance drew from the entire spectrum.

Playing Ravel's "La Valse" might seem anticlimactic after the glories of Gershwin, but Mr. Robertson and the Symphony invested the performance with the same degree of panache, so the choice ultimately made sense.

"La Valse" begins almost as if under water, with muted sounds coming from all directions. The conductor unveiled them gradually, using supple but expressive motions. As the sound gained in intensity, he provoked sharp outbursts and then settled into a demonic but controlled frenzy. "La Valse," written in the wake of the First World War, is about as ironic as music gets, recasting the imperishably happy waltz motif into a dance of death. Mr. Robertson enacted this role with vigor, transforming himself into an expiring ballet dancer as he hurled his arms to and fro across the podium. The end arrived with a bang, followed by sustained applause.