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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 it seems to be on almost every...
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...
by Terry McNeill
Saturday, April 14, 2018
Listeners and yes even music critics usually prepare for a concert with research, checking recorded performances, looking at artist biographies and even reviewing sheet music. This was a difficult task for the April 14 Redwood Arts Council concert in Sebastopol’s Community Church, as the performers...
by Terry McNeill
Sunday, April 08, 2018
Long time Classical Sonoma readers may recall many Trio Navarro concert reviews that lauded their virtuosity and interest in rarely played repertoire. The April 8 concert in Schroeder Hall before 85 chamber music fans featured sterling performances but had a mostly conservative menu of popular trio...
by Abby Wasserman
Sunday, April 08, 2018
Kevin Kenner’s April 8 recital at Dominican University’s Angelico Hall had been advertised as all-Chopin, but he added a detour into another seminal Polish composer-pianist, Paderewski. Several of Mr. Kenner’s teachers were Poles, he speaks Polish, and he navigated at the piano both composers’ deman...
by Steve Osborn
Sunday, April 08, 2018
In an April 8 Santa Rosa Symphony concert filled to the brim with instruments--electric violin, vibraphone, marimba, xylophone, glockenspiel, keyboard samplers, harps, piano and myriad drums, gongs and bells, to say nothing of winds, brass and strings--the instrument that came out on top was the hum...
by Terry McNeill
Saturday, March 31, 2018
At the core of the group of Valley of the Moon Music Festival (VOM) musicians is an ensemble of trios and duos, and as a trio March 31 Festival founders cellist Tanya Tomkins and pianist Eric Zivian joined British violinist Monica Huggett for a chamber music concert in the Green Music Center’s Schro...
Choral and Vocal
by Terry McNeill
Friday, March 30, 2018
Maurice Duruflé’s short and intense Requiem has been heard in Santa Rosa’s Church of the Incarnation before, but the March 30 Good Friday performance was stripped down in the number of performers, combining Cantiamo Sonoma and the St. Cecilia Choir with musical underpinning from organist Robert Youn...
by Terry McNeill
Sunday, March 25, 2018
Convention in piano recitals has the artist coming on stage and playing. Canadian pianist Charles Richard-Hamelin walked on Schroeder Hall’s stage March 25 and didn’t play for six minutes, chatting with the audience. A risk for some artists. Then most programs include a contemporary or rarely play...
by Paul Blanchard
Sunday, March 18, 2018
Organist Robert Huw Morgan’s artistry spun through the web of early variation form in a Mar. 18 recital on Schroeder Hall’s wonderful Brombaugh organ. Mr. Morgan, Stanford University’s resident organist, performs a wide range of repertoire, but as he said in comments to the audience, he loves when h...
Mendocino Music Festival / Saturday, July 09, 2016
Geoff Nuttall, violin; Stephan Prutsman, piano.

Violinist Geoff Nuttall


by Kayleen Asbo
Saturday, July 09, 2016

In ancient Greece there were two gods of music, representing two different musical principles. Apollo, God of the Sun, was associated with intellectual clarity, and his was a kind of music that focused on order, balance, refinement and mathematical precision. Dionysus (known to the Romans of a later age as Bacchus) the god of Drama and Drinking, was connected to music of searing emotional intensity: ecstatically joyful or tragic; blisteringly raw or comedic. Apollonian music is savored with the mind, which appreciates its formal constructs and subtle nuances. Dionysian music, on the other hand, affects the whole body: tears leak from eyes and feet begin tapping of their own accord in delight.

The best composers are a blend of both Apollo and Dionysus, with head and heart in perfect harmony. Bach, Beethoven and Brahms in part have become the pillars of the pantheon of classical musical because they embody both polarities in polyphonic perfection.

Too often musicians perform Bach as if he were all Apollonian intellect. Perhaps persuaded by the Haussmann portrait of 1742 where Bach looks like a dry, stiff and stern schoolmaster, they interpret his music as if it were only a brilliant academic exercise, playing from the wrists down and neck up. In truth, there has seldom existed a more passionate human being, and Bach was a man who outlived his first wife and buried ten of his twenty children. Grief was an omnipresent companion during his years, but Bach never lost the capacity to love, to laugh and to dance. Exuberant Bach family reunions consisted of singing four part chorales, dancing up a storm and sharing puns and jokes.

Violinist Geoff Nuttall and pianist Stephen Prutsman viscerally conveyed Bach’s sense of humor and vitality at the Mendocino Music Festival’s opening chamber music event July 9 in the big Festival tent in Mendocino. It was an ambitious concert that provided the rare opportunity to hear the entire collection of the Six Sonatas for Clavier and Violin, unduly neglected works that provide an encyclopedia of emotion. In their best moments, the artists captured the soul-searing tenderness of the arioso-like slow movements and brought a vigorous, infectious energy and joie de vivre to the intricacies of the technically demanding fugues.

The B minor sonata offered an intimate invitation to enter into a lament, almost as if the audience were overhearing a soliloquy. Mr. Prutsman’s understated use of the damper pedal (a most appropriate choice in translating the score from harpsichord to a modern instrument) helped establish a long legato line in the poignant descending repeated chords before the first sustained solitary and keening tone emerged from the violin and the instruments spun out the elegant and elegiac melody.

The dramatic shift between this opening dirge and the succeeding movement could not have been more dramatic. Throwing himself bodily into the Allegro Mr. Nuttall literally pounced on the downbeats and continued to dance his way through the buoyant rhythms to follow. At times this Dionysian approach sacrificed precision, control and intonation for physical intensity and comedy.

Following the infectious rendition of the fourth movement, where the duo admirably handled the rapid-fire passagework, it became clear why Mr. Nuttall is called the “The Jon Stewart of the Violin”. The artist wittily addressed the audience from the stage about Bach, offering insights into the succeeding works that were both comedic and insightful and captivated the near capacity crowd. For example, he offered a preview of the climactic section of the A Major sonata, demonstrating the difference between how it is written on the page (as a single chord accompanied with the word arpeggione) and how it is to be translated into performance, describing it as the violin’s “bluegrass moment”. He let it be known that he could not keep from dancing during this movement and invited the audience to jump into the aisles to join him.

It was tempting to take him up on his offer, and even the two pre-teenagers sitting in front of me were able to grasp and appreciate the unbridled exuberance of this performance, bursting into grins, and sitting on the edge of their seats as Mr. Nuttall threw himself with Dionysian abandon into the most difficult passagework.

Performing in a large tent yields many challenges, and finding the right balance between parts without adequate feedback from the stage is one. More disturbing were the interruptions that plagued the emotional epicenter of the program. The performers had prepared the audience to receive the tenderness of the Adagio ma non tanto of the E Major Sonata by deconstructing its parts. A third of the way into what promised to be the highlight of the day a percussive cell phone went off and thirty seconds later sirens from the nearby fire department blared, and towards the end of this exquisite playing they sounded again. Stalwart, the performers continued with unabated concentration, but it was painfully frustrating. I was reminded of T.S Eliot’s lines: Humankind cannot bear too much reality. The stark beauty of the naked spiritual vulnerability of the their oblation could only be perceived dimly through the veil of worldly cacophony. How I longed for the performers to repeat this work as an encore.

The recital’s second half offered many moments of delight: the C Minor sonata blossomed with an elegance and suppleness in the slow movements and the fourth movement ‘s polyphonic writing was treated with a much-appreciated lightness and grace in the piano (a quality I had longed for during much of the program). The fifth sonata’s Largo found the delicate balance between direct emotional expression and intellectual clarity and restraint, and the first movement of the final sonata had the audience tapping their toes once again.

We live in an age that seems almost pathologically afraid of silence. Much more silence was needed during this concert, not just listener silence or a reprieve from the occasional motorcycles rumbling outside the tent, but also more silence within the concert itself, before, during and after each sonata. Mozart said the most important part of the music was the silence, and taking the time to allow each movement to echo before immediately plunging into the next notes allows the audience to truly savor the sonic richness they have experienced. Quite often final notes in this performance were cut short to make a dashing and dramatic visual effects or to hurry to the next movement.

Perhaps the duo was afraid the audience could not tolerate such silence, and Mr. Nuttall quipped after intermission, “Wow, look how many of you stayed! I had a nightmare that this concert would be like the Haydn Farewell Symphony, with only two of us left on stage at the end”. He should not have feared, as the dynamism and engagement of the duo’s approach was palpable, and had immediate appeal to an audience. A woman next to me said as the standing ovation continued, “I was so surprised! I didn’t know that Bach could be so much fun!”

We live in a time where there is a need to create more passionate and informed listeners, and Messrs Nuttall and Prutsman did just that. Can you find more refined, elegant and delicate interpretations of these masterworks? Yes, Frank Peter Zimmerman, for one. However, I don’t know of any other performers who would have engaged, entertained and educated an audience so brilliantly. It was a triumph in that the duo succeeded in converting skeptical listeners to the concept that fugues can be fun, and that for sheer unbridled exuberance, Bach can be better than bluegrass.