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Recital
GLITTERING PIANISM IN LI'S OAKMONT RECITAL
by Terry McNeill
Thursday, April 11, 2019
Piano prodigies have always been a fascination for the music public, and the greatest of them (some were Mozart, Mendelssohn, Liszt, Saint Saëns, Hofmann) went on to legendary fame. George Li, who made is local debut at a Music at Oakmont recital April 11, was a remarkable recent keyboard prodigy t...
Symphony
SO CO PHIL'S SEASON CLOSER WITH EXPANSIVE PROKOFIEV 5TH IN JACKSON
by Terry McNeill
Sunday, April 07, 2019
Closing their 20th season with their usual programming aplomb, the Sonoma County Philharmonic played a provocative set of concerts April 6 and 7 in the Jackson Theater, the Orchestra’s new home at the Sonoma Country Day School by the Sonoma County Airport. Local composer Nolan Gasser’s Sonoma Overt...
Choral and Vocal
SISTINE CHAPEL INSPIRATION FOR THE TALLIS SCHOLARS IN WEILL HALL
by Sonia Morse Tubridy
Friday, April 05, 2019
Returning to Weill Hall April 5 after a seven year absence, the ten singers of the Tallis Scholars brought the sacred choral tradition of Palestrina and his contemporaries to an audience of delighted music lovers. Under the direction of Peter Phillips, the 1973 founder of the group, the program was...
Symphony
AUTUMNAL SIBELIUS 7TH HIGHLIGHTS VSO'S SEASON CLOSING CONCERT
by Terry McNeill
Sunday, March 31, 2019
Closing their 87th Season March 30 and 31 the Vallejo Symphony has moved from a single weekend concert to a set of two, and the late March response was two full houses in the charming downtown Vallejo Empress Theater. Conductor Marc Taddei opened the Sunday program with a rousing performance of B...
Recital
SHARED INSTRUMENTAL BEAUTY IN VIEAUX-MEYERS WEILL HALL CONCERT
by Abby Wasserman
Saturday, March 30, 2019
Exciting timbral sound and intricate counterpoint, made possible when two artists with complementary instruments play together, were richly explored by violinist Anne Akiko Meyers and guitarist Jason Vieaux March 30 in Weill Hall. Whether in close harmony, or unison, or weaving separate melodies to...
Chamber
RARE MAHLER QUARTET AT MILL VALLEY CHAMBER CONCERT
by Abby Wasserman
Sunday, March 24, 2019
Piano quartets are relatively rare in the classical literature, and there are only about 40 compositions for the combination of piano, violin, viola and cello, mostly from the Romantic period of the mid to late 1800s. It therefore was special March 24 to hear three great works of this medium, perfor...
Symphony
AMERICAN CLASSICS SPARKLE UNDER KAHANE’S BATON
by Steve Osborn
Saturday, March 16, 2019
Jeffrey Kahane, the Santa Rosa Symphony’s former conductor, returned to the Weill Hall podium on Saturday night, and the results were expectedly wonderful. The concert of American classics was by turns playful (Gershwin’s “An American in Paris”), emotional (Barber’s violin concerto) and triumphant (...
Chamber
FLORESTAN TRIO'S MENDELSSOHN AT SPRING LAKE VILLAGE CONCERT
by Terry McNeill
Friday, March 08, 2019
Spring Lake Village’s monthly concerts usually clock in under an hour, but the March 8 Florestan Trio’s performance was more extended as so much good music was on tap for the 125 residents attending at Santa Rosa’s premiere retirement residence facility. Four short pieces made up the first half, be...
Chamber
TILDEN TRIO'S BOHEMIAN ENERGY AT DOMINICAN CONCERT
by Terry McNeill
Sunday, March 03, 2019
Hard on the heels of the Trio Navarro’s late February concert in Sonoma State’s Schroeder Hall, Northern California’s other premiere resident piano trio, the Tilden, played an equally convincing program March 3 in Dominican University’s Angelico Hall. Clearly each hall’s acoustics, stage pianos and...
Recital
24 SONGS IN A MENKE-THOMPSON RECITAL ODYSSEY
by Terry McNeill
Saturday, February 23, 2019
Sonoma County pop and country singing enjoys continued popularity but it rare to see a professional classical vocal concert announced. Diva Ruth Ann Swenson was once a local star, but she has long departed and not much virtuoso recital singing can be found in the North Bay. But the exception to th...
CHAMBER REVIEW
Music in the Vineyards / Friday, August 08, 2014

UBER VIOLISTS AT MUSIC IN THE VINEYARDS

by Steve Osborn
Friday, August 08, 2014

Full disclosure. I'm an amateur--very amateur--violist, so Friday's Music in the Vineyards concert in Napa Valley was of particular interest to me. The program featured two sextets with prominent viola parts; a trio for viola, flute and piano; and the pièce de résistance: a quartet for four violas. All of these were preceded by witty and informative introductions by the festival's co-artistic director Michael Adams, who happens to be a violist.

Adams somehow managed to avoid any viola jokes in his introductions, but not so here. What is the sound of four violas playing in unison? A cluster chord.

Such might be the fate of four ordinary violists undertaking York Bowen's Fantasy Quartet for four violas, written in 1907. In the hands of Adams and three other violists, however, the results went far beyond perfect unison. The ensemble produced a rich and varied sound with an astonishing range, even though all four musicians were playing the same type of instrument.

Unlike violins, violas come in different lengths and widths, so they naturally sound different from each other. Add in four distinct musical personalities and you have an ensemble with the texture and variety of a Persian carpet. Everyone played well, but first violist Masumi Per Rostad was exceptional. His sound was velvety, and his motions were as graceful as a swan's.

The only thing lacking was a composer befitting the ensemble. It's easy to understand how the once-prominent Bowen has faded into obscurity. His music, while competent, soon descends into a morass of romantic excess. It would be great for the movies, but it doesn't hold up in a concert hall, which is too bad for an ensemble as good as this one. Maybe the infinitesimal four-viola repertoire has something better to offer.

Before the viola quartet, Rostad joined flutist Adam Kuenzel and pianist Wei-Yi Yang for an engaging performance of Maurice Duruflé's "Prelude, Recitative and Variations" (1928), a resolutely Impressionist work written in Paris during the Jazz Age, when Impressionism was but a memory. Despite his backward-looking style, Duruflé was a masterful composer, nowhere more so than in this beguiling trio.

Rostad dominated the opening with his gorgeous sound and commanding stage presence. The others soon proved his equal, and the three interacted seamlessly to bring forth Duruflé's languid melodies and emotive variations. All three displayed a light touch and a genuine feeling for Duruflé's intricate score.

The trio was in strong contrast to the opener that preceded it: Prokofiev's "Overture on Hebrew Themes" (1919), a commissioned work that sounds almost nothing like Prokofiev. The story goes that a Russian ensemble comprised of string quartet, clarinet and piano asked Prokofiev to write a melodic piece based on Hebrew tunes and even gave him a book of such tunes for inspiration.

The result--which Prokofiev disdained--is a medley of Klezmer-sounding ditties with sophisticated instrumentation. The piece gets more boisterous as it goes along, which in this case resulted in some overly loud passages that taxed the sonic limits of the relatively small performance space at Silverado Vineyards. Cellist Tanya Tomkins pierced the din with an outstanding solo that featured an intense and tight vibrato.

A much better sextet concluded the program, this one by Dvorak (1878). Written for two violins, two violas and two cellos, the sextet was published during Dvorak's meteoric rise to fame, and it features unbounded energy and confident writing throughout. At times, it sounds more like a string trio than a sextet. The first violinist, violist and cellist get all the prominent lines, supported by their fellow instrumentalists. There are also occasional duets for each type of instrument.

This structure proved ideal for highlighting the first chairs: violinist Arnaud Sussman, violist Roberto Díaz and especially cellist Brandon Vamos, who embodied the sextet's musical drive with sweeping gestures and intense facial expressions. His tone was beautiful, and his rhythmic sense was unfailingly precise.

The performance was magnificent. The dense texture of the opening movement can often sound muddy, but here each part was distinct and well coordinated, especially the lovely viola duet near the end. In the subsequent Dumka dance, the players displayed exceptional rhythmic flexibility, transporting listeners back to village dances in 19th-century Bohemia. So too with the ensuing Furiant, taken at top speed.

The players saved the best for last. The concluding movement proceeded from a stately opening in the violas and cellos to an increasingly complex set of variations that pulled deeper and deeper meanings out of the central theme. The last of these was an unbridled romp led by first violinist Sussman, who somehow marshaled everyone past the finish line in record time.

[Reprinted by permission of San Francisco Classical Voice.]