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Symphony
A SLICE OF HEAVEN FROM THE SANTA ROSA SYMPHONY
by Steve Osborn
Sunday, January 13, 2019
Under its vibrant new music director, Francesco Lecce-Chong, the Santa Rosa Symphony this past Sunday offered a nearly perfect afternoon of Mozart (Symphony No. 40) and Mahler (Symphony No. 4). While the two works share a common digit, the only element uniting them is genius. They made for a dazzlin...
Recital
KHOZYAINOV'S BRILLIANT PIANISM IN MILL VALLEY RECITAL
by Abby Wasserman
Sunday, January 13, 2019
In its third concert of the season the Mill Valley Chamber Music Society Jan. 13 presented Russian virtuoso Nikolay Khozyainov. His intelligent and sensitive interpretations, masterful pedal work, and virtuoso technique left the near-capacity audience in Mt. Tamalpais Methodist Church astounded and ...
Chamber
A COMPLETE MUSICAL PACKAGE IN ARRON'S OAKMONT RECITAL
by Terry McNeill
Thursday, January 10, 2019
Cellist Edward Arron has been a welcome artist at the Music at Oakmont series, and after his Jan. 10 recital it’s easy to understand his popularity. His artistry is a complete package, with potent instrumental technique wedded to integral musical conceptions. In a nearly flawless concert with pian...
Choral and Vocal
COMPELLING WEILL HALL MESSIAH ORATORIO FROM THE ABS
by Terry McNeill
Saturday, December 15, 2018
Each holiday season when a Classical Sonoma reviewer is assigned to cover a concert with Handel’s seminal Oratorio The Messiah, the question arises about what new commentary can possibly apply to the often performed choral work. Well, if it’s the American Bach Soloists performing the piece, written...
Opera
PURCELL'S DIDO IN YOUTHFUL SSU OPERA
by Abby Wasserman
Wednesday, December 05, 2018
A doomed royal love affair, the theme of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, was brought to lovely life at Sonoma State University Dec. 5 in the school’s Schroeder Hall. Conducted by faculty member Zachary Gordin, who also played continuo, the performance was only the second opera production presented by the...
Symphony
SANTA ROSA SYMPHONY HERALDS THE HOLIDAYS
by Steve Osborn
Sunday, December 02, 2018
Antlers are typical headgear during the holiday season, but the ushers and one bassist at the Santa Rosa Symphony concert on Dec. 2 sported apples atop their heads. The red fruits were festive but perplexing until the orchestra began Rossini’s “William Tell” overture, at which point even the dull-wi...
Symphony
A HERO'S ODYSSEY IN SO CO PHIL CONCERT
by Art Hofmann
Sunday, November 18, 2018
The audience at the Sonoma County Philharmonic’s Nov. 18 concert was warned at the outset that the old Santa Rosa High School auditorium boiler was turned off, and there was a steady eminently audible tone in the hall. Conductor Norman Gamboa said the tone was an A, a high one. But there it was, a...
Recital
MTA BENEFIT CONCERT FEATURES FAURE, DVORAK, JANACEK AND BARBER WORKS
by Terry McNeill
Sunday, November 11, 2018
In a splendid concert Nov. 11 the Music Teachers Association of California, Sonoma County Chapter, presented their sixth annual benefit concert before 40 avid listeners in the Santa Rosa home of Helen Howard and Robert Yeats. Highlights of the performances, involving eight musicians in various perf...
Recital
SERKIN'S SINGULAR MOZART AND BACH PLAYING IN WEILL RECITAL
by Terry McNeill
Friday, November 09, 2018
Returning to Weill Hall following a fire-related recital cancellation in 2017, pianist Peter Serkin programmed just three works in his Nov. 7 concert, three masterworks that challenged both artist and audience alike. It needs to be said at the outset that Mr. Serkin takes a decidedly non-standard a...
Chamber
LUMINOUS FAURE TOPS LINCOLN TRIO'S SPRING LAKE VILLAGE CONCERT
by Terry McNeill
Wednesday, November 07, 2018
Familiarity in chamber music often evokes warm appreciation, and it was thus Nov. 7 when the Chicago-based Lincoln Piano Trio made one of their many Sonoma County appearances, this time on the Spring Lake Village Classical Music Series. Regularly presented by local impresario Robert Hayden, the Lin...
CHAMBER REVIEW
Mendocino Music Festival / Saturday, July 09, 2016
Geoff Nuttall, violin; Stephan Prutsman, piano.

Violinist Geoff Nuttall

BACHANALIAN BEGINNING AT MENDOCINO MUSIC FESTIVAL

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.