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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...
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...
Symphony
PEACE AND LOVE FROM THE SANTA ROSA SYMPHONY
by Steve Osborn
Sunday, November 04, 2018
Before the Santa Rosa Symphony’s Nov. 4 performance of Leonard Bernstein’s “Symphonic Dances from West Side Story,” Symphony CEO Alan Silow took a moment to acknowledge the victims of the Pittsburgh synagogue attack and to observe that music offers a more peaceful and loving view of the world. Mr. ...
Symphony
MIGHTY SHOSTAKOVICH 10TH OPENS MARIN SYMPHONY SEASON
by Terry McNeill
Sunday, October 28, 2018
Just two works were on the opening program of the Marin Symphony’s 67th season Oct. 28, Tchaikovsky’s iconic D Major Violin Concerto, and Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony. Before a full house in the Marin Center Auditorium conductor Alasdair Neale set a judicious opening tempo in the brief orchestra i...
Symphony
VIVALDI FOR ALL SEASONS IN WEILL BAROQUE CONCERT
by Sonia Morse Tubridy
Saturday, October 27, 2018
The Venice Baroque Orchestra, a dozen superb musicians that include strings, harpsichord and recorder, played an uplifting concert Oct. 27 of mostly Vivaldi sinfonias and concertos. The Weill Hall audience of 600 had rapt attention throughout, and the playing was of the highest musical level. This r...
Symphony
LECCE-CHONG PROVES HIS METTLE WITH SANTA ROSA SYMPHONY
by Steve Osborn
Sunday, October 07, 2018
Francesco Lecce-Chong was handed two warhorses for his debut as conductor of the Santa Rosa Symphony, and he rode them both to thrilling victory. For the first win, Brahms’ violin concerto, he owed much to soloist Arnaud Sussman, but for the other triumph, Beethoven’s fifth symphony, he and his musi...
Symphony
SAKAKEENY'S LION AND ROSE HIGHLIGHTS SO CO PHIL'S 20TH SEASON OPENER
by Terry McNeill
Saturday, September 22, 2018
Fresh from a triumphant tour in Latin America the Sonoma County Philharmonic opened its 20th season Sept. 22 in a celebratory concert in the Santa Rosa High School Auditorium. Keeping to the evening’s orchestra history and past performance, conductor emeritus Gabriel Sakakeeny, who led the So Co Ph...
Symphony
!PURA VIDA! A SONIC TRIUMPH FOR SO CO PHIL IN THRILLING COSTA RICA TOUR CONCERT
by Terry McNeill
Tuesday, June 19, 2018
Long anticipated events, such as a great sporting game, gourmet feast, holiday trip or a concert, occasionally fall way short of expectations. The results don’t measure to expectations. With the Sonoma County Philharmonic’s Costa Rica concert June 19, the performance exceeded any heated or tenuou...
Symphony
SO CO PHIL BON VOYAGE CONCERT AN ODYSSEY OF CONTRASTING SOUND
by Terry McNeill
Friday, June 15, 2018
In a splashy bon voyage concert June 15 the Sonoma County Philharmonic Orchestra launched its June 17-25 Costa Rica tour, performing gratis in Santa Rosa’s Jackson Theater the repertoire for tour concerts in San José, Costa Rica’s capital, and in surrounding towns. Conductor Norman Gamboa pr...
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.]