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Choral and Vocal
A SEASONAL MESSIAH WITH BALANCE AND HEFT
by Terry McNeill
Sunday, December 10, 2017
The mid-December concert season seems for jaded reviewers to invariably include a Messiah performance, and perhaps a Messiah in a long string of similar and mundane performances. This was decidedly not the case when San Francisco’s Philharmonia Baroque mounted Handel’s eminent three-part 1742 Orato...
Symphony
ANDREW GRAMS FINDS HIS GROOVE SR SYMPHONY IN RACHMANINOFF
by Steve Osborn
Sunday, December 03, 2017
Last Sunday’s Santa Rosa Symphony concert featured two elegant and refined guests: music director candidate Andrew Grams and pianist Stewart Goodyear. Both displayed dazzling technique and consummate artistry, but Goodyear was the more consistent of the two. Some of Grams’ inconsistency may have st...
Symphony
SONIC SPLASH AND ENSEMBLE DELICACY AT SO CO PHIL CONCERT
by Terry McNeill
Saturday, November 18, 2017
Franck’s wonderful D Minor Symphony is a rarity on today’s concert programs, and I can’t remember a North Bay performance in many years from any of the six resident area orchestras. So it was good to see the Sonoma County Philharmonic feature it in their Nov. 18 and 19 concerts at Santa Rosa High S...
Chamber
TETZLAFF QUARTET'S MASTERY IN MOZART AND SCHUBERT
by Terry McNeill
Saturday, November 11, 2017
German violin virtuoso Christian Tetzlaff presented a critically successful Weill Hall recital Feb. 18, and returned to the same venue Nov. 11 with his admirable Tetzlaff Quartet in a program of Berg, Schubert and Mozart. Clarity of ensemble has always been a hallmark of this Quartet, and contrapun...
Chamber
RAVISHING SHORT OPERAS FROM FRENCH TROUPE IN WEILL
by Terry McNeill
Friday, November 10, 2017
Standard Weill Hall fall and winter classical programs are pretty routine – symphonic music, chamber, solo recitals – so it was a rare treat Nov. 10 when just two works from the 17th century were gloriously presented. With such specialized compositions, period performers with commanding authenticit...
Symphony
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 diminut...
Symphony
TO RUSSIA WITH BRILLIANCE
by Terry McNeill
Friday, November 03, 2017
Russian pianist Denis Matsuev’s high velocity and frequently slam-bang virtuosity came to the Green Music Center last year with a thrilling and equally perplexing solo performance. So many in Weill Nov. 3 were interested to hear if his pianistic style would mesh well in a concerto, and with a fine ...
Symphony
THUNDEROUS TCHAIKOVSKY FOURTH OPENS MARIN SYMPHONY SEASON
by Terry McNeill
Tuesday, October 31, 2017
North Coast weather is turning cool and the nights longer, ideal for Tchaikovsky’s big boned symphonies. The Santa Rosa Symphony recently programmed the Fourth (F Minor Symphony) as did the San Francisco Symphony. Norman Gamboa’s Sonoma County Philharmonic just played the Tchaikovsky First, forgoi...
Recital
RESPIGHI'S PUNGENT SONATA HIGHLIGHTS KENNEY-GUTMAN RECITAL
by Terry McNeill
Sunday, October 29, 2017
Respighi’s B Minor Violin Sonata seems never to gain conventional repertoire status. Perhaps the great Heifetz recording is intimidating, and I can recall over many years just two local performances: Jason Todorov and William Corbett-Jones years go in Newman, and a titanic reading in March by Anne S...
Chamber
MIRÓ QUARTET AND JEFFERY KAHANE PROVIDE MUSICAL RELIEF FOR FIRE-RAVAGED SONOMA COUNTY
by Steve Osborn
Saturday, October 28, 2017
Sonoma County’s Green Music Center has stood silent but unscathed the past few weeks as the county begins to recover from the devastating fires that began on the evening of October 8, only a few hours after a Santa Rosa Symphony concert in the Music Center. Since then, concerts by the Symphony, the ...
CHAMBER REVIEW

Nicki Bell and Leslie Gardner After Playing Ravel's "La Valse"

SIX PEDALS AND 176 KEYS

by Terry McNeill
Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Concerts featuring two pianos have been on the upswing in Sonoma County, due mainly to the work of the Twenty Fingers Club, a group of well-trained amateurs devoted to conventional and arcane repertoire for 176 keys and six pedals. Club members don’t perform as often as they would like, as two-piano venues are rare.

The Sebastopol Center for the Arts solved the venue problem with a February Two-Piano Festival, bringing in a second instrument for five concerts and a gaggle of performers – 24 in all. Due to schedule conflicts, I was only able to attend the final event, an afternoon recital Feb. 24 by resident Sebastopol pianists Nicki Bell and Leslie Gardner. Twenty-five rapt listeners found the eclectic program of Piazzola, Brubeck and Ravel a change from the usual Mozart and Rachmaninoff two-piano works.

Astor Piazzola’s tangos are popular these days, and one hears the Libertango and Infinity everywhere as encores. The Bell-Gardner duo chose six less performed tangos, composed from 1968 to 1988. Beginning with the mysterious Michelangelo 70, the set unfolded with snippets of dreamy and languid themes, some works akin to bad film music and peppered with raucous repeated dissonances. I found the contrapuntal lines and sharp contrasts of the Fuga y misterio the most convincing, along with the lyrical and somber fifth work, Soledad. Some of this music is sectional and plodding, with the pianists making every effort to keep together with too many score pages to turn quickly. Nonetheless, instrumental balance was excellent.

Dave Brubeck’s “Points on Jazz” ballet suite followed. Rather than a transcription, this piece was originally written for two pianos, and its six movements form distinct character pieces in Brubeck’s inimitable style. The syncopated modes quickly became the benchmark of the work. The opening Prelude was light-hearted, the following Scherzo up-tempo and bluesy. Bell’s ardent pianism was apparent in the torch-song slow Blues, ending with a brassy piano line from Gardner and 11 (were there that many?) insistent mezzo forte chords. The pianists were equally effective in a clamorous fugue with husky chords unfolding over an ostinato bass. A Tin-Pan Alley Rag with deliciously interwoven pop tunes led to a final Chorale. Here the performers were sometimes not together, even though the tempos was slow. The contrary motion ending, played beautifully, lifted the theme quietly into the ethos and resounding applause from the crowd.

Ravel’s masterful La Valse concluded the concert, and it seemed a work in progress for the performers. It’s a virtuoso handful with swirling waltz rhythms and insinuating rhythmic patterns leading to a powerful close, depicting the demise of the classic Viennese waltz era. The playing was muddy, the phrases tentative rather than ringing, the orchestral ending lacking impact. All through the recital the lack of vocal line clarity, due in part to the less-than-professional instruments and the room acoustics, hindered the music’s transparency.

The Bell-Gardner duo played with ardor and focus, a fitting end to a festival of unfamiliar music and congenial performers.