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!PURA VIDA! A SONIC TRIUMPH FOR SO CO PHIL IN THRILLING COSTA RICA TOUR CONCERT
by Terry McNeill
Tuesday, June 19, 2018
Long anticipated events, such as a great sporting game, gourmet feast, holiday trip or a concert, occasionally fall way short of expectations. The results don’t measure to expectations. With the Sonoma County Philharmonic’s Costa Rica concert June 19, the performance exceeded any heated or tenuou...
Symphony
SO CO PHIL BON VOYAGE CONCERT AN ODYSSEY OF CONTRASTING SOUND
by Terry McNeill
Friday, June 15, 2018
In a splashy bon voyage concert June 15 the Sonoma County Philharmonic Orchestra launched its June 17-25 Costa Rica tour, performing gratis in Santa Rosa’s Jackson Theater the repertoire for tour concerts in San José, Costa Rica’s capital, and in surrounding towns. Conductor Norman Gamboa pr...
Chamber
COMMANDING CHOPIN AND DEBUSSY IN SLV RECITAL
by Terry McNeill
Wednesday, June 06, 2018
Concerts at the classy Spring Lake Village Retirement Home in Santa Rosa have admission limited to residents and a few guests, but the chance to hear a first cabin North Bay pianist June 6 brought a Classical Sonoma reviewer into the audience of 100. The crowd numbers were unusually low due to a ba...
Recital
MUSICAL ALCHEMY INSIDE A HIDDEN GEM
by Kayleen Asbo
Friday, May 25, 2018
The Petaluma Historical Library and Museum is a hidden gem of Sonoma County, a gracious building that is one of Sonoma County’s loveliest venues for chamber music concerts, with a fine period piano particularly suited to Romantic music.  Of the surprisingly large array of festivities there, one of t...
Chamber
FINAL VOM MUSICIANS CONCERT IN SCHROEDER A SCHUBERT DELIGHT
by Terry McNeill
Saturday, May 12, 2018
It's rare to have the opportunity to compare in a short period two performances of the same major Schubert work, in this case the great B Flat Piano Trio, D. 898. The chance came May 12 when the Valley of the Moon Festival musicians played it in Schroeder, just over a month since the Hall’s residen...
Symphony
FERRANDIS BIDS ADIEU WITH MAHLER’S FINAL SYMPHONY
by Steve Osborn
Sunday, May 06, 2018
Sonoma State students in graduation robes posed for pictures and hugged each other at the university’s stone gates on Sunday afternoon, mirroring the prolonged farewells within the university’s Green Music Center, where Bruno Ferrandis bid adieu to the Santa Rosa Symphony after a dozen years at the ...
Symphony
SONIC SPLENDOR AT MARIN SYMPHONY SEASON FINALE
by Abby Wasserman
Tuesday, May 01, 2018
The Marin Symphony Orchestra ended the current season with a flourish, interpreting big and small works by Richard Strauss and Stravinsky. Strauss and Stravinsky were contemporaries for 40 years, but inhabited different worlds. Both composers were affected by cataclysmic changes and war, and musical...
Symphony
ORGAN SYMPHONY IN SSU ORCHESTRA CONCERT IN WEILL
by Terry McNeill
Sunday, April 29, 2018
Though Classical Sonoma seldom reviews student concerts, as ample North Coast concerts keep the staff of 11 reviewers busy. But the chance to hear the Sonoma State University Orchestra tackle St. Saëns’ majestic Organ Symphony April 29 was a rare opportunity and not easily to be missed. Avec l’...
Recital
HEAVENLY SCHUBERT AND DEMONIC CHOPIN
by Terry McNeill
Saturday, April 21, 2018
One of the anomalies in the long ago “Golden Era” of romantic pianism (about 1905 to 1940) is that the virtuoso giants of the time didn’t play Schubert. It took the German pianist Artur Schnabel to bring the beauties of Schuber’s work to the public’s attention, and now they seem to be on almost ever...
Symphony
SPLENDID JUPITER AND ZOOMING CONCERTO AT VALLEJO SYMPHONY SEASON FINALE
by Terry McNeill
Sunday, April 15, 2018
Over the past two years the Vallejo Symphony has made big changes, moving from a stark middle school auditorium to the snazzy remodeled 1911-era downtown Empress Theater, and engaging Marc Taddei as its seventh conductor. April 15 was the season’s final concert of the 86th season. In a programmin...
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.