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Chamber
THREE SONG CYCLES HIGHLIGHT VIBRANT SLV RECITAL
by Pamela Hicks-Gailey
Wednesday, May 08, 2019
An ambitious recital of vocal and piano music was presented May 8 at Santa Rosa’s Spring Lake Village by mezzo-soprano Kindra Scharich and pianist Jeffrey LaDeur. The duo engaged the enthusiastic audience with scholarly friendliness and artistry in performances of Beethoven's short cycle of six song...
Symphony
ALEXANDER TORADZE DELIVERS A LESSON IN SERENITY
by Steve Osborn
Sunday, May 05, 2019
An entire concerto movement consisting of serene piano melodies over a soothing backdrop is probably not the first thing that springs to mind when seeing Shostakovich’s name on an orchestra program, but that’s exactly what pianist Alexander Toradze delivered--twice--at Sunday’s Santa Rosa Symphony c...
Symphony
MARIN SYMPHONY SEASON CLOSES WITH AUTUMNAL ELGAR AND THEATRICAL BEETHOVEN
by Abby Wasserman
Sunday, April 28, 2019
Mozart’s enchanting Overture to his opera The Magic Flute, a miniature tapestry of gems from the 1791 work, opened the Marin Symphony’s final concert of the 2018-2019 season. Under conductor Alasdair Neale, the playing of the sprightly seven-minute piece by a reduced-size classical ensemble sparkled...
Recital
SHAHAM-EGUCHI DUO'S EXCITING MUSICAL GENEROSITY IN WEILL
by Abby Wasserman
Friday, April 26, 2019
Violinist Gil Shaham may be the most modest virtuoso on the concert stage today, and it is the great music he most wishes to put forward, never himself. Generosity, a quality he is known for, was abundantly clear in Weill Hall April 26 when he performed, with pianist Akira Eguchi, a generous program...
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 REVIEW
Santa Rosa Symphony / Sunday, January 11, 2015
Michael Christie, conductor. Mark O'Connor, violin

Violinist Mark O'Connor

AMERICANA WITH A FLASHING BOW

by Steve Osborn
Sunday, January 11, 2015

Mark O'Connor is an extraordinary fiddler, as he amply demonstrated via his bravura performance with the Santa Rosa Symphony on Sunday afternoon. Whether he is an extraordinary composer is open to debate.

The audience had ample time to judge O'Connor's compositional skills during the program, half of which was taken up by the outer movements of his lengthy "Fiddle Concerto" and the entirety of his much shorter "Strings and Threads." The other half went to another American--Aaron Copland--who also mines folk-music material.

O'Connor's writing ranges from the predictable to the sublime. The latter quality was nowhere more evident than in his concerto's final cadenza, which begins with a plaintive melody that evokes the melancholy of the Appalachians. Clad in a sharkskin suit, O'Connor first set off the melody with double stops, but then took flight and enveloped the tune with a swirling halo of rapid-fire notes in the upper registers, all played sotto voce. The effect was haunting, even mesmerizing.

The cadenza continued in this vein for quite a while. The passagework got ever trickier, and O'Connor's bow flew ever faster, until he suddenly lifted it off the strings and played a two-handed pizzicato with fingers plucking from all directions. Just as abruptly, he disdained the strings and played his instrument as if it were a drum, tapping his fingers everywhere but the fingerboard.

Taken by itself, the cadenza was a musical delight. But it was just one component of the concerto, a substantial work that features a full orchestra--in this case led by guest conductor Michael Christie--and plenty of back and forth with the soloist. Here O'Connor's skills were less evident. The concerto is essentially a pastiche, with a string of less than memorable tunes strung together by O'Connor's instrumental virtuosity, much like Paganini used to do.

O'Connor often tries to develop themes by starting them at the bottom of the scale, then repeating them up a step, then another step, and so forth until reaching an artificial climax at the top. Another favored device is for the soloist to repeat orchestral material with substantial embellishments, playing a bevy of notes when one or two might suffice. This device, which one might call poly-notalism, dazzles at first but gets tiresome when every line is filled with hemidemisemiquavers.

On balance, O'Connor's virtuosity and infectious enthusiasm more than compensated for the concerto's structural deficiencies. That was even more the case in "Strings and Threads," an unabashed suite of folk-like tunes written by O'Connor and played by him and his wife Maggie O'Connor, with the orchestra acting as little more than a basso continuo.

Ms. O'Connor, wearing a gossamer orange gown, proved to be her husband's match in terms of finger and bow speed, but her sound was more subdued, perhaps because of her violin. The two took turns playing the beguiling melodies, which more or less trace the history of American folk music, from an ancient-sounding "Fair Dancer Reel" to a swing-based "Sweet Suzanne." The playing throughout was dazzling and rapid, with occasional ritards during the bluesier numbers.

Like O'Connor, Copland often bases his music on folk material, but his approach is entirely different. Instead of taking the tunes at face value, he strips them to the core and then reassembles the material in his own distinctive voice. The tunes are still in there somewhere, but the composition--be it "Billy the Kid" or "El Salón México"--is pure Copland.

Christie, the guest conductor, opened the concert with a competent but somewhat lackluster reading of "Billy the Kid," a seven-movement suite drawn from the ballet of the same name. Christie is an unobtrusive leader, with feet solidly planted and arms giving a compact and consistent beat. His technique was helpful for Copland's tricky rhythms and copious syncopation, but it failed to deliver a compelling arch for the entire work.

Orchestra and conductor fared much better in "El Salón México," which closed the concert. Here Christie began with an invigorating tempo while maintaining a clean sound. The many brass and woodwind solos emerged from that texture with startling clarity. Even better, the precise beats and carefully observed syncopations created palpable tension as Christie kept driving the orchestra forward.

In "El Salón México," the rests are as important as the notes. Instead of creating a fluid line, Copland offers only glimpses, engaging the audience to fill in the gaps. Nothing lands where you think it will, even in the long crescendo to the end. These last few moments gave rise to the best playing of the afternoon. Surely the tensions had to resolve, and they finally did with a triumphant final chord.

Reprinted by permission of San Francisco Classical Voice.