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Chamber
FLORESTAN TRIO'S MENDELSSOHN AT SPRING LAKE VILLAGE CONCERT
by Terry McNeill
Friday, March 08, 2019
Spring Lake Village’s monthly concerts usually clock in under an hour, but the March 8 Florestan Trio’s performance was more extended as so much good music was on tap for the 125 residents attending at Santa Rosa’s premiere retirement residence facility. Four short pieces made up the first half, be...
Chamber
TILDEN TRIO'S BOHEMIAN ENERGY AT DOMINICAN CONCERT
by Terry McNeill
Sunday, March 03, 2019
Hard on the heels of the Trio Navarro’s late February concert in Sonoma State’s Schroeder Hall, Northern California’s other premiere resident piano trio, the Tilden, played an equally convincing program March 3 in Dominican University’s Angelico Hall. Clearly each hall’s acoustics, stage pianos and...
Recital
24 SONGS IN A MENKE-THOMPSON RECITAL ODYSSEY
by Terry McNeill
Saturday, February 23, 2019
Sonoma County pop and country singing enjoys continued popularity but it rare to see a professional classical vocal concert announced. Diva Ruth Ann Swenson was once a local star, but she has long departed and not much virtuoso recital singing can be found in the North Bay. But the exception to th...
Chamber
UNEXPECTED ARENSKY AND MENDELSSOHN BY THE NAVARRO
by Terry McNeill
Sunday, February 17, 2019
The 100 people entering Schroeder Hall Feb. 17 for a Trio Navarro concert were handed a program that appeared to feature two popular piano trios, Mendelssohn and Arensky. But continuing the Navarro’s tradition of repertoire exploration, the pieces were not the usual first Mendelssohn and first Aren...
Recital
GLOVER'S ECLECTIC PROGRAMMING HIGHLIGHT'S CINNABAR RECITAL
by Terry McNeill
Sunday, February 17, 2019
Daniel Glover is arguably the busiest virtuoso pianist in the San Francisco Bay area, but rarely is heard in North Bay concerts. So 90 local pianophiles were anxious to hear him Feb. 17 in Petaluma’s charming small Cinnabar Theater, and they were rewarded with an eclectic program of sometimes unfam...
Symphony
MENDELSSOHN'S SCOTTISH SAVES THE EVENING IN SRS WEILL CONCERT
by Terry McNeill
Monday, February 11, 2019
The audience entering Weill Hall for Santa Rosa Symphony concerts Feb. 9-11 were presented with a program that on first glance appeared a curious patchwork – a great symphony mixed with a seldom heard concerto and two disparate overtures, and a guest conductor unknown locally. Monday night’s concer...
Recital
INTRIGUING BELL-HAYWOOD RECITAL BEFORE FULL HOUSE IN WEILL HALL
by Abby Wasserman
Friday, February 08, 2019
A big portion of the capacity audience in Weill Hall February 8th came to hear violinist Joshua Bell’s virtuosity, and were treated as well to splendid playing from Sam Haywood, Mr. Bell’s regular pianist since 2010. The duo performed three engaging sonatas, highlighted by Mr. Bell’s sterling techn...
Symphony
TRIPLE PLAY UKIAH SYMPHONY CONCERT AND TCHAIKOVSKY SERENADE
by Terry McNeill
Sunday, January 27, 2019
Over the years the Ukiah Symphony’s concerts have been in the Classical Sonoma Calendar sections, but rarely has this Orchestra, now in its 39th season, had a full winter season concert review. The provocative Jan. 27 program in Mendocino College’s Center Theater seemed a good reason to reacquaint ...
Symphony
JACKSON THEATER WELCOMES A NEW RESIDENT ORCHESTRA
by Terry McNeill
Saturday, January 26, 2019
Moving to a permanent new performance venue can be a perilous undertaking for an orchestra, with different acoustics, the loyal audience finding the new spot and infrastructure challenges of lighting and lobby and backstage operations. In their first concert Jan. 26 in Windsor’s Jackson Theater the...
Symphony
ECLECTIC PASSIONATE PROGRAMMING AT MARIN SYMPHONY CONCERT
by Abby Wasserman
Saturday, January 26, 2019
The Marin Symphony’s second Masterworks concert of the 2018-19 season featured works by John Adams, Sibelius and Brahms, a masterful assembly. In a spoken introduction before the program’s first half, conductor Alasdair Neale primed the audience for the “terra incognita” of Adams’ The Chairman Dance...
SYMPHONY REVIEW
Santa Rosa Symphony / Sunday, November 05, 2017
Mei-Ann Chen, conductor. Nareh Arghamanyan, piano

Composer Jennifer Higdon

MEI-ANN CHEN PROVES A WORTHY CONTENDER FOR SANTA ROSA SYMPHONY CONDUCTING POST

by Steve Osborn
Sunday, November 05, 2017

These days the focus of Santa Rosa Symphony concerts is as much on the conductor candidates as on the soloists. This past weekend’s concerts featured the second of those candidates, Mei-Ann Chen, along with pianist Nareh Arghamanyan, each of whom cut an imposing figure on the stage.

Chen is diminutive but powerful, with an exacting style of conducting that commands attention. Arghamanyan likewise commands attention with truly elegant playing punctuated by dramatic flings of her long brown hair.

These two wonderful musicians collaborated on Tchaikovsky’s well-worn yet always surprising first piano concerto--but not until Chen had warmed up the orchestra with a frenetic dash through Shostakovich’s “Festival Overture.” From the heraldic opening in the brass to the triumphant final notes, the emphasis was on speed and exactitude. Chen set a quick and easy-to-follow beat that encouraged meticulous playing and tight ensemble. Her gestures were confident, and she used the entire podium to her advantage, jumping up and down excitedly in the rollicking final bars. The applause was vigorous.

Having established her street cred, Chen moved to the background for the Tchaikovsky. She kept the orchestral volume firmly under control and allowed Arghamanyan plenty of space to revel in Tchaikovsky’s echt Romanticism. The pianist’s opening chords were authoritative, and she projected easily all the way to the back of the hall. She displayed solid control of dynamics throughout the concerto, from thunderous fortissimos to delicate pianissimos that inspired rapt silence from the audience. Even more, she displayed an endless variety of keyboard attacks and releases. At times her fingers were jackhammers, at others the lightest of brushes, displaying so little movement that her hands seemed to glide above the keyboard.

All was not perfect, however. At times Arghamanyan was too heavy on the pedal, and the upper notes of her chosen piano, a Fazioli, sounded muted compared to the ringing tones of the orchestra’s usual instrument, a Steinway. She also flagged a bit toward the end of the first movement, but she sprang right back into action in the Andantino second, where she gave as much attention to the simplest of melodies as to the most dazzling runs. The finale, an Allegro con fuoco, was almost flawless.

Summoned back to the stage after sustained applause, Arghamanyan played more Tchaikovsky as an encore: the “October” movement from The Seasons. The simplicity of the piece belies its emotional intensity, which Arghamanyan kept ratcheting upward the softer she got. There was dead silence from the audience as the piece faded into nothingness.

After intermission, Chen displayed yet more street cred by conducting a contemporary work, Jennifer Higdon’s blue cathedral. Higdon’s work is quite approachable for audiences leery of the new, and the architecture of her works, in this instance ecclesiastical, is readily apparent.

In her program notes, Higdon writes that “I was pondering a lot of things about the journey we make after death … I was imagining a traveler on a journey through a glass cathedral in the sky.” This journey is made manifest in the music through a series of two-note phrases in the strings (left foot, right foot?) punctuated by outbursts from the percussion and winds. The step-wise motion proceeds inexorably until it bursts into a densely orchestrated volley from the brass, with bells tolling in the background. Tinkling and ringing instruments of many varieties gradually take over, leading to an ethereal sound world at the end.

Chen conducted all of this with great authority and an unerring beat, vividly recreating the journey down the cathedral aisle to a heavenly altar that is fundamentally different from the rest of the space. The performance was good, but the rigid program of the piece left one yearning for something unexpected.

After blue cathedral, the side lights on the stage changed from blue to red, and the stage hands removed Chen’s music stand, letting everyone know that she would be conducting the final work, Mendelssohn’s “Italian” symphony, from memory. The absence of an intervening stand gave Chen more direct access to the orchestra, and she took full advantage, often leaning so far into the various string sections that she could have touched the front stands with her baton.

The pace from the outset was brisk, leading one nearby patron to begin tapping his toes. Somehow Chen managed to keep a steady beat while devoting most of her attention to musical expression. She used a wide variety of gestures--sweeping her arms, crouching down, bending her wrists, jumping in the air--to usher forth the pungent sforzandos, hushed diminuendos and rapid accelerandos that make for great orchestral playing. She was a pleasure to watch, and apparently to play for, because everyone in the orchestra gave her full attention.

As the Mendelssohn motored forward, Chen often gave only the downbeats or no beats at all in favor of expressive gestures. She brought a sense of urgency to the opening Allegro vivace, equanimity to the subsequent Andante con moto, and sweetness to the Con moto moderato. Her best conducting came in the final movement, a Presto followed by a spirited Saltarello (a fast-paced Italian dance). This finale is an intricate mechanism that Chen kept ticking perfectly, even though the beat sometimes seemed to be measured in microseconds. From the furious sixteenth-note opening in the strings to the crashing finale, she never let up, not even once.

There are three conductor candidates yet to come for the Symphony, but Chen displayed almost everything one could want from a conductor: musicality, confidence, wonderful technique and restless enthusiasm. She will be tough to beat.

[Reprinted with permission from San Francisco Classical Voice.]