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Recital
PERLMAN TRIUMPHS IN LOW TEMPERATURE SOLD OUT WEILL HALL RECITAL
by Terry McNeill
Sunday, September 15, 2019
Itzhak Perlman did a rare thing for a classical musician in his Sept. 15 recital – he sold out Weill Hall’s 1,400 seats, with 50 more on stage. Clearly the violinist has an adoring local audience that came to hear him perform with pianist Rohan De Silva in a concert of two substantial sonatas mixed...
Recital
TRANSCRIPTIONS ABOUND IN GALBRAITH'S GUITAR RECITAL
by Gary Digman
Saturday, September 14, 2019
Master guitarist Paul Galbraith’s artistry was much in evidence Sept. 14 in his Sebastopol Community Church recital. Attendees in the Redwood Arts Council events were initially bothered by the afternoon’s heat in the church, but it was of small importance when the Cambridge, England-based artist be...
Recital
ECLECTIC DRAMATIC PROGRAMING IN SPRING LAKE VILLAGE RECITAL
by Terry McNeill
Wednesday, September 11, 2019
Marin-based pianist Laura Magnani combined piquant remarks to an audience of 100 Sept. 11 with dramatic music making in a recital at Spring Lake Village’s Montgomery Center. Ms. Magnani’s eclectic programming in past SLV recitals continued, beginning with three sonatas by her Italian compatriot Sca...
Chamber
PERFORMER AS PROMOTER: CLARA SCHUMANN AND MUSICAL SALONS CLOSE VOM FESTIVAL
by Pamela Hicks Gailey
Sunday, July 28, 2019
The July 28 closing performance of the Valley of the Moon Chamber Music Festival could have been subtitled "Friends", as it was devoted to works by both Clara and Robert Schumann, and those of their friends and protégés Brahms and virtuoso violinist Joseph Joachim, with whom Clara toured extensively...
Chamber
ROMANTIC CHAMBER WORKS HIGHLIGHT VOM FESTIVAL AT HANNA CENTER
by Sonia Morse Tubridy
Saturday, July 27, 2019
Now in its 5th season the Valley of the Moon Chamber Music Festival presented July 27 a concert titled “My Brilliant Sister,” featuring Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel’s compositions for combinations of voice, fortepiano and strings. Fanny and her brother Felix were close, and Felix occasionally published ...
Symphony
ROMANTIC DREAMS AT THE MENDOCINO MUSIC FESTIVAL
by Kayleen Asbo
Wednesday, July 24, 2019
Romanticism, contrary to many popular perceptions, wasn’t simply about diving into the habitat of the heart. Romanticism began as a literary movement that elevated the power of nature as a transcendent force and sought with keen nostalgia to rediscover the wisdom of the past. The Romantics in both l...
Chamber
CHAUSSON CONCERTO SHINES IN A VISIONARY'S SALON
by Steve Osborn
Sunday, July 21, 2019
Ernest Chausson’s four-movement Concerto in D Major for Violin, Piano, and String Quartet (1891) is neither concerto nor sonata nor symphony, but it somehow manages to be all three, especially when played with fire and conviction by an accomplished soloist. Those incendiary and emotional elements w...
Chamber
EUROPEAN SALON MUSIC CAPTIVATES AT VOM FESTIVAL CONCERT
by Pamela Hicks Gailey
Sunday, July 21, 2019
Two stunning programs of 19th and 20th century chamber music were presented on July 21 and 28 as part of the Valley of the Moon Music Festival at the Hanna Center in Sonoma. Festival founders and directors pianist Eric Zivian and cellist Tanya Tompkins were both on hand to contribute brilliantly at ...
Chamber
ECLECTIC INSTRUMENTAL COMBINATIONS IN VOM FESTIVAL CONCERT
by Sonia Morse Tubridy
Saturday, July 20, 2019
A Lovely summer afternoon in Sonoma Valley, an excellent small concert hall, enthusiastic audience, exciting musicians and creative programming with interesting story lines. All these were combined July 20 at a Valley of the Moon Festival concert titled “An Italian in Paris.” This is the fifth seaso...
Opera
'ELIXIR' A WELCOME TONIC IN SPRIGHTLY ANNUAL MMF OPERA
by Terry McNeill
Friday, July 19, 2019
In most of the Mendocino Music Festival’s 33 seasons a single evening is given over to a staged opera, with bare bones sets, lighting, costumes, minimal cast and short length. No Wagner or Verdi here, no multiple acts and complicated production demands. Light and frothy are the usual, and so it wa...
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.