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Chamber
THREE SONG CYCLES HIGHLIGHT VIBRANT SLV RECITAL
by Pamela Hicks-Gailey
Wednesday, May 08, 2019
An ambitious recital of vocal and piano music was presented May 8 at Santa Rosa’s Spring Lake Village by mezzo-soprano Kindra Scharich and pianist Jeffrey LaDeur. The duo engaged the enthusiastic audience with scholarly friendliness and artistry in performances of Beethoven's short cycle of six song...
Symphony
ALEXANDER TORADZE DELIVERS A LESSON IN SERENITY
by Steve Osborn
Sunday, May 05, 2019
An entire concerto movement consisting of serene piano melodies over a soothing backdrop is probably not the first thing that springs to mind when seeing Shostakovich’s name on an orchestra program, but that’s exactly what pianist Alexander Toradze delivered--twice--at Sunday’s Santa Rosa Symphony c...
Symphony
MARIN SYMPHONY SEASON CLOSES WITH AUTUMNAL ELGAR AND THEATRICAL BEETHOVEN
by Abby Wasserman
Sunday, April 28, 2019
Mozart’s enchanting Overture to his opera The Magic Flute, a miniature tapestry of gems from the 1791 work, opened the Marin Symphony’s final concert of the 2018-2019 season. Under conductor Alasdair Neale, the playing of the sprightly seven-minute piece by a reduced-size classical ensemble sparkled...
Recital
SHAHAM-EGUCHI DUO'S EXCITING MUSICAL GENEROSITY IN WEILL
by Abby Wasserman
Friday, April 26, 2019
Violinist Gil Shaham may be the most modest virtuoso on the concert stage today, and it is the great music he most wishes to put forward, never himself. Generosity, a quality he is known for, was abundantly clear in Weill Hall April 26 when he performed, with pianist Akira Eguchi, a generous program...
Recital
GLITTERING PIANISM IN LI'S OAKMONT RECITAL
by Terry McNeill
Thursday, April 11, 2019
Piano prodigies have always been a fascination for the music public, and the greatest of them (some were Mozart, Mendelssohn, Liszt, Saint Saëns, Hofmann) went on to legendary fame. George Li, who made is local debut at a Music at Oakmont recital April 11, was a remarkable recent keyboard prodigy t...
Symphony
SO CO PHIL'S SEASON CLOSER WITH EXPANSIVE PROKOFIEV 5TH IN JACKSON
by Terry McNeill
Sunday, April 07, 2019
Closing their 20th season with their usual programming aplomb, the Sonoma County Philharmonic played a provocative set of concerts April 6 and 7 in the Jackson Theater, the Orchestra’s new home at the Sonoma Country Day School by the Sonoma County Airport. Local composer Nolan Gasser’s Sonoma Overt...
Choral and Vocal
SISTINE CHAPEL INSPIRATION FOR THE TALLIS SCHOLARS IN WEILL HALL
by Sonia Morse Tubridy
Friday, April 05, 2019
Returning to Weill Hall April 5 after a seven year absence, the ten singers of the Tallis Scholars brought the sacred choral tradition of Palestrina and his contemporaries to an audience of delighted music lovers. Under the direction of Peter Phillips, the 1973 founder of the group, the program was...
Symphony
AUTUMNAL SIBELIUS 7TH HIGHLIGHTS VSO'S SEASON CLOSING CONCERT
by Terry McNeill
Sunday, March 31, 2019
Closing their 87th Season March 30 and 31 the Vallejo Symphony has moved from a single weekend concert to a set of two, and the late March response was two full houses in the charming downtown Vallejo Empress Theater. Conductor Marc Taddei opened the Sunday program with a rousing performance of B...
Recital
SHARED INSTRUMENTAL BEAUTY IN VIEAUX-MEYERS WEILL HALL CONCERT
by Abby Wasserman
Saturday, March 30, 2019
Exciting timbral sound and intricate counterpoint, made possible when two artists with complementary instruments play together, were richly explored by violinist Anne Akiko Meyers and guitarist Jason Vieaux March 30 in Weill Hall. Whether in close harmony, or unison, or weaving separate melodies to...
Chamber
RARE MAHLER QUARTET AT MILL VALLEY CHAMBER CONCERT
by Abby Wasserman
Sunday, March 24, 2019
Piano quartets are relatively rare in the classical literature, and there are only about 40 compositions for the combination of piano, violin, viola and cello, mostly from the Romantic period of the mid to late 1800s. It therefore was special March 24 to hear three great works of this medium, perfor...
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.]