In some ways the Santa Rosa Symphony’s Nov. 15 concert on YouTube resembled a Conceptual Art performance from the 1970s. On display were about 30 masked orchestral musicians playing six feet apart from each other on stage, some of them separated by plexiglass barriers. In the 1970s, the concept behind the performance would have been that orchestral musicians make music with their hands, not their mouths. In 2020, the reality is that it’s still possible to play music if you keep your distance.
Viewers of the Santa Rosa Symphony’s inaugural socially distanced YouTube concert on Oct. 11 could be forgiven for thinking they had stumbled upon a performance of Verdi’s “Un Ballo in Maschera” (A Masked Ball), given that the string players in the opening shot all wore black masks. The sole exception was conductor Francesco Lecce-Chong, who sported a white-framed face shield.
The masks were a necessary coronavirus precaution for the strings, who were arranged in widely spaced chairs a... more
The Feb. 9 performance by the Santa Rosa Symphony offered a healthy dose of 21st century music firmly bound to the 19th. Matt Browne’s first symphony, “The Course of Empire”—based on a series of five paintings by Thomas Cole, who founded the Hudson River School of American painting in the 1820s—employs a diverse collection of 19th century melodic snippets to recount the familiar narrative of an empire’s rise and fall.
Mr. Browne’s method is uncannily similar to that of Ives, who inters... more
The Sibelius violin concerto is one of several mountains that violin soloists need to ascend before they can lay claim to stardom. Hundreds make the attempt every year, but only a few reach the top. Simone Porter, who played the concerto with the Santa Rosa Symphony on Sunday afternoon, got close but didn’t quite summit.
Ms. Porter wore a red jumpsuit that complemented her athleticism and musicality. She was often in motion, whether bending at the knees to gather strength or bolting upr... more
The Mozart Requiem includes four intermittent vocal soloists, but the real star is the choir, which is featured in almost every movement. That stardom shone bright at the Santa Rosa Symphony’s memorable Requiem performance on Monday night. The soloists were good, but the choir was superb. Located within the orchestra instead of the choir loft, the choristers were fully integrated into the sonic texture, aided in no small part by their excellent diction and well-controlled dynamics.
Ernest Chausson’s four-movement Concerto in D Major for Violin, Piano, and String Quartet (1891) is neither concerto nor sonata nor symphony, but it somehow manages to be all three, especially when played with fire and conviction by an accomplished soloist.
Those incendiary and emotional elements were on vivid display at the Valley of the Moon Festival on Sunday afternoon. Playing in the surprisingly good acoustics of the Hanna Boys Center auditorium in the town of Sonoma, soloist Rache... more
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 concert, led by conductor emeritus Bruno Ferrandis.
The movement in question was the central Andante of Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 2, a crystal-clear mountain lake perched between two t... more
Jeffrey Kahane, the Santa Rosa Symphony’s former conductor, returned to the Weill Hall podium on Saturday night, and the results were expectedly wonderful. The concert of American classics was by turns playful (Gershwin’s “An American in Paris”), emotional (Barber’s violin concerto) and triumphant (Copland’s third symphony). The players were in top form, and the soloist, Elena Urioste, was a marvel to behold. The only flaws were in the music itself, not in the performance.
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 dazzling couple.
As if to herald these two masterworks, Lecce-Chong opened the program with two antiphonal brass fanfares by Toru Takemitsu: “Signals from Heaven 1 (day)” and “Signals from Heaven 2 ... more
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-witted reviewer made the connection.
Instead of having Tell stride on stage and shoot the apple off his son’s head, the orchestra offered a bull’s-eye performance that split the overture right... more
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. Silow’s comments were timely, and the Symphony proved them to be true with an energetic and memorable performance of Bernstein’s dances, along with an eclectic program that ranged from Liszt’s... more
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 musicians deserve full honors.
Beethoven’s Fifth is the primary source of the modern symphony, the achievement against which all others are measured. Not a note is wasted within its tightly reaso... more
Sonoma State students in graduation robes posed for pictures and hugged each other at the university’s stone gates on Sunday afternoon, mirroring the prolonged farewells within the university’s Green Music Center, where Bruno Ferrandis bid adieu to the Santa Rosa Symphony after a dozen years at the helm with an unforgettable performance of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony. Some audience members took photographs to commemorate the event, but the most vivid remembrance is of the beautiful sonorities and hu... more
In an April 8 Santa Rosa Symphony concert filled to the brim with instruments--electric violin, vibraphone, marimba, xylophone, glockenspiel, keyboard samplers, harps, piano and myriad drums, gongs and bells, to say nothing of winds, brass and strings--the instrument that came out on top was the human voice, both in person and impersonated.
The in-person voices appeared in Prokofiev’s “Alexander Nevsky” cantata; the impersonated ones in the “Prelude and Liebestod” from Wagner’s “Tristan... more
In these international times, what makes a piece of music American? For Michael Christie, the answer is that it needs to have at least premiered on these shores, if not been composed here. Thus the rationale for the “all American” program that Christie--the fifth and final conducting candidate for the Santa Rosa Symphony--led on Saturday night at the Green Music Center.
The opening work, Leonard Bernstein’s suite from “On the Waterfront,” is truly American, and the closing, Dvorak’s “Ne... more
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 stemmed from his chosen repertoire. According to Symphony staff, each of the conductor candidates (Grams is the third of five) chooses his or her own repertoire, with the exception of the piano ... more
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 bro... more
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 Academy of St. Martin’s in the Fields, Peter Serkin, and several others have been cancelled at the GMC’s two halls: Weill (1,400 seats) and Schroeder (250 seats).
The Santa Rosa Symphony is calling 2017-18 “a choice season” because the next few months offer the audience and the symphony’s board of directors a chance to choose a new conductor from a pool of five candidates. Each candidate will lead a three-concert weekend set this fall and winter, with a final decision expected next March.
The conductor for the opening set was Francesco Lecce-Chong, a 30-year-old Colorado native who began his career as a pianist. Currently music director of the Eu... more
Bruno Ferrandis may be French, but he excels in Soviet repertoire. His Slavonic expertise was more than amply demonstrated at the Santa Rosa Symphony’s May 7 concert, where the program began joyfully with Khachaturian’s ballet suite from “Masquerade,” surged forward with Prokofiev’s second violin concerto, and culminated in a magnificent performance of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 11, also known as “The Year 1905.”
Where to begin? Why not with an actual Slav, violin soloist Vadim Gluzman... more
Santa Rosa Symphony concerts usually feature high-powered soloists imported from afar, but for their recent “Bring on the Strings” concert set, they stuck close to home, thrusting their principal violin, viola and cello into the limelight. The violinist (Joseph Edelberg) and the violist (Elizabeth Prior) shared the stage for a dazzling performance of Mozart’s much-loved Sinfonia Concertante; and the cellist (Adelle-Akiko Kearns) was the soloist for Gabriel Fauré’s rarely heard Élegie.
Valentine’s Day is just around the corner, so the Santa Rosa Symphony feted the occasion by telling and retelling the story of Romeo and Juliet, a tale ever the more poignant during our era of stark divisions. The first telling was from Berlioz; the second from Prokofiev. In between was Brahms’ monumental B-Flat Second Piano Concerto, Op. 83, with soloist Alessio Bax.
Mr. Bax is a no-frills pianist who sits ramrod straight with his head bent over the keyboard. No skyward gazes or expres... more
Thanks to the generosity of Don Green (as in Green Music Center), the Santa Rosa Symphony has for many years performed an annual choral program, usually during the holiday season. In keeping with this tradition, the orchestra and the SSU Symphonic Chorus featured Rachmaninoff’s choral symphony “The Bells” during their Dec. 3-5 concert set (I attended on Dec. 4). Rachmaninoff’s title suggests a festive work appropriate to the season, but the reality is that “The Bells” is a peculiarly Russian ver... more
Gifted pianists are everywhere these days, but few have the prodigious speed, stamina, and musicality of Orion Weiss. He exhibited all these qualities in a memorable rendition of Béla Bartók’s second piano concerto with the Santa Rosa Symphony Nov. 6 in Weill.
Weiss is a no-nonsense pianist. He seated himself at the piano, gathered his energies, and then launched full bore into the finger-crunching opening runs of the Bartók. He spent nearly all his time staring at his hands, as if guid... more
Sustain, sustain, sustain! That exhortation often passes the lips of music teachers, and their students’ success is often judged by how well they master the concept. Two students who mastered it to perfection are Bruno and Jean Ferrandis, the “Brothers in Black” who led and soloed in the Santa Rosa Symphony’s October opening set of concerts in Weill Hall.
The basic idea of sustain is to play all the way through the note and the phrase, never letting the energy peter out. This quality is... more
Concert titles are rarely specific, but the one for the Santa Rosa Symphony’s May 7 concert, “Jazzy Impressions,” is as literal as they get. The first half consisted of two American pieces influenced by jazz, and the second of two French works in the impressionist style.
Pairing two similar pieces in a concert is risky, because one inevitably suffers in comparison with the other. In this case, Gershwin’s piano concerto easily trumped Bernstein’s dance music from “On the Town,” and Ravel... more
Like her violin virtuoso colleagues, Rachel Barton Pine can make herself heard above the din of a full orchestra without noticeable effort; but what made her Feb. 21 performance with the Santa Rosa Symphony memorable was how softly she played. Although she dispatched the forte and fortissimo passages in the Beethoven D Major concerto with élan, her intensity increased markedly the softer she became. The most gripping points in each movement were the trills and other filigrees in the upper regist... more
Could Mei-Ann Chen be a candidate to replace Bruno Ferrandis at the helm of the Santa Rosa Symphony when his contract expires at the end of the 2017-18 season? If so, she would be a strong contender. Her impressive guest conducting at the orchestra’s Jan. 10 concert at Weill Hall in Sonoma State’s Green Center was overshadowed, however, by a staggering performance from the young violinist Caroline Goulding, who played the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto to perfection.
Santa Rosa Symphony’s Nov. 7 concert ran the gamut, not only from new to old, but also from impassioned to inert. The new was Gyorgy Kurtag’s “...quasi una fantasia...”; the old were the Schumann piano concerto and Brahms’ first symphony. The Brahms and Kurtag performances were lively, but the Schumann was moribund.
Let’s start with the lively ones. “...quasi una fantasia...” was clearly unusual even before the music began. Instead of the standard orchestral seating arrangement, the cha... more
The Santa Rosa Symphony season opener was a double bill in more ways than two. It featured two piano concertos and two pianos played by two identical twins. Pianist sisters Christina and Michelle Naughton are virtually indistinguishable from afar, and they also wore nearly the same dresses. They were even more indistinguishable in their playing and technique. They and the orchestra came together for an evening of superior music-making on Sunday at Sonoma State’s Green Music Center.
Among Romantic symphonists, Mahler is the king of climaxes; he surges from one to the next orgiastically. His third symphony is a perfect example: It begins strong, fades to quietude, resurges to maximum amplitude, and repeats the process. For listeners willing to ride these waves, the experience can be unforgettable.
The Santa Rosa Symphony's performance of Mahler's epic work, in Weill Hall on a gloomy Sunday in early May, rewarded listeners amply. Under the inspired leadership of Brun... more
Look! Up in the sky! It's a bird. It's a plane. It's Gil Shaham-man, the superhuman violinist! He's faster than a speeding bullet!
If you long to zoom around a speedway at 200-plus miles per hour but can't afford a race car, Gil Shaham can replicate the experience for you on his violin. In his March 27 performance at Weill Hall Shaham mounted a lightning-fast assault on Bach's sonatas and partitas for unaccompanied violin. The lightning was clearly visible to anyone trying to keep track... more
At the beginning of the 20th century, Russia was home to three extraordinary composers--Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev, Stravinsky--whose stars continue to shine. Rachmaninoff carried on the Romantic tradition, Stravinsky tried to annihilate it, and Prokofiev landed somewhere in the middle, clinging to traditional forms while injecting radically new content.
Their differences were well illustrated by the Santa Rosa Symphony in their March 22 concert in Weill Hall. Conductor Bruno Ferrandis cho... more
Seeing a bandoneón player in front of a symphony orchestra reminds one of the old joke about a kangaroo walking into a high-priced bar. The bartender says, "We don't get many kangaroos in here," to which the kangaroo replies, "With these prices, I can see why." Likewise, if a bandoneónist were to walk into an orchestra rehearsal and be told, "We don't get many bandoneónists in here," he or she might well reply, "With this instrumentation, I can see why."
Mark O'Connor is an extraordinary fiddler, as he amply demonstrated via his bravura performance with the Santa Rosa Symphony on Sunday afternoon. Whether he is an extraordinary composer is open to debate.
The audience had ample time to judge O'Connor's compositional skills during the program, half of which was taken up by the outer movements of his lengthy "Fiddle Concerto" and the entirety of his much shorter "Strings and Threads." The other half went to another American--Aaron Copland... more
Much like a home baseball team that scores the winning run in the bottom of the ninth, the Santa Rosa Symphony saved the best for last in its Sunday afternoon concert on Oct. 12. They led off with a tentative but ultimately captivating reading of Richard Strauss's "Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks," followed with a solid but subdued performance of Beethoven's "Emperor" piano concerto, hit their stride with Wagner's "Tannhaüser" overture, and finally scored with Bartok's magnificent "Miraculous ... more
Full disclosure. I'm an amateur--very amateur--violist, so Friday's Music in the Vineyards concert in Napa Valley was of particular interest to me. The program featured two sextets with prominent viola parts; a trio for viola, flute and piano; and the pičce de résistance: a quartet for four violas. All of these were preceded by witty and informative introductions by the festival's co-artistic director Michael Adams, who happens to be a violist.
Adams somehow managed to avoid any viola j... more
The audience filing into Saturday's National Youth Orchestra concert at Weill Hall in Rohnert Park was greeted by the sight and sound of 120 teenaged musicians furiously warming up and clad in a patriotic outfit of red pants and sneakers, white shirts and … black blazers, ties and scarves? So much for the red, white and blue, but the costumes were beguiling nonetheless.
Equally beguiling were the inhabitants of those costumes: fresh-faced young people aged 16 to 19, brimming with confid... more
For its postseason concert on May 22, the Santa Rosa Symphony--together with piano soloist Jeffrey Kahane and conductor Bruno Ferrandis--played for free. The money they would otherwise have earned will be used to benefit more than 20,000 children served by the Symphony's extensive outreach efforts, which include four youth orchestras, free concerts for elementary schoolchildren, and various school-based music activities. Over the years, these efforts have produced a steady stream of musicians an... more
On a May afternoon of abundant sunshine and warmth, a few hundred people gathered in Weill Hall to hear a song cycle about the bleakest of midwinters. The composer was Schubert, the singer was the Austrian baritone Florian Boesch, and the cycle was "Winterreise" (Winter's Journey), easily the saddest and most profound example of the form.
Boesch and pianist Malcom Martineau were clad entirely in black, the better to reinforce the somber mood. After reminding the audience not to applaud ... more
The title of the Santa Rosa Symphony's May 3 concert at Weill Hall was "Spring Rhapsody," and the music contained therein was indeed rhapsodic, ranging from the youthful exuberance of Debussy, to the sparkling wit of Rachmaninoff, to the pagan energy of Stravinsky. But the real rhapsody was the Symphony's ability, along with conductor Bruno Ferrandis and piano soloist Jon Kimura Parker, to bring each of those pieces to vibrant life. The playing was inspired from beginning to end, with no glitche... more
Mere prose is inadequate to describe how good the Vienna Philharmonic was at Weill Hall on March 11, but perhaps a waltz title will do the job. How about "Seid umschlungen, Millionen" (Be embraced, you millions)? That was the Johann Strauss encore the orchestra played after their superlative guest conductor, Andris Nelsons, was repeatedly called back to the stage at concert's end.
"Be embraced" was the theme throughout the evening, from the opening bars of Haydn's 90th symphony, through... more
For their March 8 concert in Occidental, the Miró Quartet played something old (Haydn), something new (Dutilleux), something borrowed (Schubert's "Death and the Maiden," based on his song of that name) and something blue (a colorful encore). Having fulfilled the terms of a proper wedding gown, they offered their listeners the sonic equivalent of marital bliss.
The listeners were many. The Occidental Center for the Arts was completely sold out, and a few extra chairs were brought in. The... more
Weill Hall at Sonoma State University was fuller than usual for the Santa Rosa Symphony concert on Sunday afternoon, Feb. 16. One reason may have been the glorious weather, as evidenced by the sun streaming through the hall's clerestory windows. Another may have been the "Sons of the Fjord" program, which featured the enduringly popular Grieg piano concerto and the titanic Sibelius Symphony No. 2.
A third and more definitive reason appeared at the beginning of the show, when the announc... more
Youth was the order of the day at the San Francisco Symphony's Jan. 23 concert in Weill Hall. Three of the four pieces on the program were written by teenaged composers--Mozart, Mendelssohn, Britten--and the fourth, by Piazzolla, included a youthful tango.
On the other hand, most of the musicians were middle-aged. There were only two dozen or so, a remarkably diminished version of an ensemble that had numbered well over 100 in its last appearance at Weill Hall, to play Richard Strauss's... more
A typical symphony concert features a visiting soloist who plays a concerto by a well-known composer. For its Jan. 11-13 concert set at the Green Music Center, the Santa Rosa Symphony augmented that tradition by offering not only a visiting soloist, but also a visiting conductor, an exotic instrument and a concerto by a relatively unknown contemporary composer. The soloist was Wu Man, the conductor was Enrique Diemecke, the instrument was a Chinese pipa, and the concerto was by Zhao Jiping, a Ch... more
Way back in 1995, when Jeffrey Kahane was just beginning to conduct the Santa Rosa Symphony, the local music critic incurred Kahane's wrath by writing an unfavorable review of a concert that included music by Leonard Bernstein. In essence, the critic opined that Bernstein was merely a show-biz composer, undeserving of serious recognition. Kahane retaliated by preceding subsequent concerts with a stern lecture to the audience extolling Bernstein's virtues and explaining why he should be taken ser... more
One way to get a free glass of wine is to buy a ticket to a San Francisco Symphony concert at the Green Music Center, wait for a dark and stormy night, then stroll into Weill Hall and behold a nearly empty stage, with only a solitary cellist tuning his instrument.
That's what happened on Thursday evening, Nov. 21, when the Symphony's buses were delayed on Highway 101 by a fallen tree and a massive traffic jam. Promptly at 8, a Symphony representative walked on stage and announced that t... more
In the advertising images promoting her Nov. 9-11 appearances with the Santa Rosa Symphony, cellist Maya Beiser is cast as an enchantress, her long golden-brown hair billowing around her brightly light face, centered on her bewitching blue eyes. She holds the cello neck as if it were a wand, preparing to cast a spell over her mesmerized beholders.
The enchantress image continued as Beiser teetered onto the stage on Sunday afternoon, Nov. 10, atop a pair of stiletto heels, with not only ... more
The United States is blessed to have dozens of great string quartets in residence, from the upstart Parker, to the mid-career Emerson, to the venerable Guarneri. Few if any of the greats, however, can surpass the Takács String Quartet, which emigrated to the United States from Hungary in 1983 and has been dazzling American audiences ever since.
Currently in residence at the University of Colorado, the quartet has been playing regularly at Cal Performances for many years, and now they ha... more
Perhaps the four syllables of Dmitri Shostakovich's last name are what inspired him to write so many works in four movements, with a predilection for 4/4 time. Two of those works were on sonic display Oct. 6 at the Santa Rosa Symphony's opening concert set: his Symphony No. 5, with the customary four movements, and his violin concerto, with an unusual four instead of the standard three. The contents of these works are mostly four-square, both rhythmically and melodically, as exemplified by the f... more
Weill Hall at the Green Music Center in Rohnert Park is actually two halls: one inside the graceful building and one outside on the amphitheater-shaped lawn. The two connect at the back of the hall, where giant panels can be slid open to bring the outdoors in and the indoors out.
Perhaps the best view of this dual identity is to be had from the "choral circle," two or more rows of seats that encircle the sides and front of the hall. The seats on the sides face forward, so you can pan ba... more
Two songs into her first-ever concert at Weill Hall, Renée Fleming got a laugh by saying, "I'm so excited when I can still make a debut." At 54, Fleming has sung just about everywhere of any consequence, but she still brings a youthful enthusiasm to her performances, along with a youthful voice.
Those first two songs, sung to a nearly full house and lawn on a glorious September afternoon, were actually arias from Handel oratorios: "To Fleeting Pleasures" from Samson, and "O Sleep... more
"My name is David, and I'm going to be your conductor for this evening." With that corny but amusing opening line, guest conductor David Robertson introduced himself and the San Francisco Symphony to a less than full house at the Green Music Center on May 23. It was hard to understand why the place wasn't packed. The soloist, Marc-Andre Hamelin, is one of the top pianists in the world, and the program featured Gershwin's ever-popular "Rhapsody in Blue," along with two crowd-pleasers from Ravel: ... more
The Santa Rosa Symphony capped off its first year in the resplendent Green Music Center with an impassioned performance of Shostakovich's Tenth Symphony, widely regarded as his masterpiece in the genre. Every section of the orchestra, from the lowest bass to the most stratospheric piccolo, played to the max, producing a lush, dense sound that filled the GMC's nearly full Weill Hall almost to bursting point.
The Shostakovich was a highlight of the season, matching or exceeding memorable ... more
Since the conclusion of his decade-long tenure with the Santa Rosa Symphony in 2006, conductor laureate Jeffrey Kahane has traveled widely, but he has often circled back to Sonoma County as a piano soloist. On Saturday evening, April 27, he upped the ante by not only bringing his prodigious keyboard talents back to the Green Music Center in Rohnert Park, but also his own ensemble, the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra.
A chamber orchestra in name only, LACO generates a powerful sound, which... more
Born in Siberia in 1971, violinist Vadim Repin is as Russian as they come, but he played nary a note of Russian music in his April 7 recital at the Green Music Center's Weill Hall. The closest he got was the last movement of the Janacek violin sonata, which celebrates the triumphal entry of Russian troops into Moravia during World War I. The other sonatas on his wide-ranging program--by Brahms, Grieg and Ravel--were far removed from any Russian influence.
The title of the Santa Rosa Symphony's March 16 concert was "Sweeping Emotions," but no brooms were in evidence, nor did the Symphony play "The Sorcerer's Apprentice," the canonic broom piece, thanks to Disney’s iconic film "Fantasia." Instead of brooms, they offered cellist Zuill Bailey, whose mop of thick black hair might have qualified as a broom, although the rest of his frame would never be mistaken for a ramrod-straight broomstick. Indeed, there was nothing rigid whatsoever about his appro... more
The Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 4 is famous for beginning with a piano solo rather than the usual orchestral introduction. To use a literary term, it begins "in media res"--in the middle of things.
My experience of the San Francisco Symphony concert at the Green Music Center on March 7 likewise began "in media res," thanks to its poorly designed parking lot and the long line of people waiting to get in. The upshot was that I missed about half the opening work: "Drift and Providence," b... more
Santa Rosa has been blessed with three superlative chamber music concerts during the past month, beginning with the Calder String Quartet in late January, followed by the Alexander String Quartet with violist Toby Appel in early February, and culminating with the Parker String Quartet one day after Valentine's Day. Choosing among the three ensembles is a difficult task, but I think the gold would ultimately go to the Parker, which proved itself capable of playing even the most difficult music wi... more
At symphony concerts, soloists need to be both sonically and visually distinctive. For the latter requirement, what better way to sail above a sea of black-jacketed players than to don a jaunty white blazer with black lapels and a black bowtie? That was the approach soloist Roy Zajac took in a memorable Feb. 9 performance of the Mozart Clarinet Concerto with the Santa Rosa Symphony.
By wearing his trademark "Za-jacket,"ť Zajac established his distinction before even playing a note. When... more
Under a full moon on Saturday, Jan. 26, before playing what he confidently predicted would be the first encore of the evening, cellist Yo Yo Ma paused to tell the overflow crowd at Weill Hall that they had “an unbelievable music room.” His choice of words is apt, because the magnificent space at the Green Music Center in Rohnert Park has both the grandeur of a symphony hall and the intimacy of a living room, at least from a sonic perspective. From the back of the hall, every note that Ma played ... more
For its Dec. 3 “Titans of Opera” concert at the Green Music Center in Rohnert Park, the Santa Rosa Symphony assembled a titanic cast of players, including a full orchestra, an additional contingent of brass, woodwind and student players, an 80-voice chorus, and two soloists. The concert was long and the pieces many, but in the end, a solitary musician stole the show: the rising American soprano Christina Major.
If your name is your destiny, this powerful singer will have a major career.... more
For the long-suffering patrons of the Santa Rosa Symphony, the acoustics at the new Green Music Center have come as a true revelation. To be fair, the Symphony’s former venue — the Wells Fargo Center — was never intended as a concert hall. It began life as a New Age church, complete with low ceilings, wall-to-wall carpeting, and a sound system designed for uplifting sermons and Christian rock. To hear the Symphony play there was like observing it at the bottom of an elevator shaft and contenting... more
With a name like the Modigliani Quartet, you might expect the players to be long-necked Parisians, fitting subjects for portraits by that early 20th-century master — and you wouldn’t be far wrong. The players are indeed Parisian, but the long necks belong to their instruments, which might as well be bodily appendages. Rarely do you see chamber musicians so closely wedded to the tools of their trade.
One reason they hold their fiddles so tight might have to do with their provenance. They... more
For the Santa Rosa Symphony’s first-ever subscription concert in the Green Music Center Oct. 6, Bruno Ferrandis chose three works with the potential to show off the center’s vaunted acoustics. All three--Mozart’s overture to “The Magic Flute,” Mahler’s first symphony, and a world premiere by composer-in-residence Edmund Campion--feature brass and percussion, along with a dynamic range that starts below pianissimo and builds to triple forte.
By and large, the acoustics matched the promis... more
Before the Santa Rosa Symphony’s inaugural concert in the new Green Music Center on Sept. 30, the audience was warned that there would be lots of opportunities for applause, but that didn’t stop them from delivering repeated ovations throughout the blazing Indian Summer afternoon. The first came before a note had been played, when Don Green was introduced. Without him there would be no Green Music Center, and the full house rose applauding to acknowledge his presence at the back of the hall.
The Santa Rosa Symphony bid adieu to the much-maligned Wells Fargo Center on May 14 with a mostly French program that showcased the talents of its French conductor, Bruno Ferrandis, and his equally French younger brother, the flute soloist Jean Ferrandis. This Castor and Pollux of the musical firmament shone brightly on the full house, which rewarded their luminescence with repeated standing ovations.
The evening began with some obligatory thank yous from executive director Alan Silow t... more
Movies have subtitles and operas have supertitles, but the Borromeo String Quartet has metatitles--titles so substantial that they replicate the entire performance, just within sight of the actual performers. Instead of words, the “metatitles” (i.e., the musical score projected on a screen) contain the actual notes the musicians are playing, allowing music readers to “follow along in the score” as the performance unfolds.
Following along in the score is something that music aficionados ... more
After a lifetime of concert going, I have to confess that I’ve never witnessed a French horn concerto in the flesh, although I’ve heard plenty of recordings by Barry Tuckwell and other French horn virtuosi. My normal experience of French horns is to observe them sitting in the back of the orchestra, occasionally tooting away. It was thus something of a revelation to see French hornist Darby Hinshaw, an erstwhile member of the Santa Rosa Symphony, stride before that ensemble last Saturday night a... more
On a day when several uncontrollable elements--lousy weather, football playoffs, hospital construction--conspired against them, guest conductor/pianist Jeffrey Kahane and the Santa Rosa Symphony packed the Wells Fargo Center by excelling at the one element firmly under their control: great music making. Kahane in particular had a fantastic day, returning in triumph to the orchestra he led for a decade, playing his heart out for a Mozart concerto, and reconnecting with musicians who clearly enjoy... more
Near the end of its Dec. 12 performance of the Brahms Requiem, a soprano in the Santa Rosa Symphony Honor Choir collapsed at the back of the stage, perhaps from excessive heat or lack of air. The incident wasn't surprising, since more than 100 singers were crammed shoulder to shoulder in the limited space. What was surprising was that the singers were able to project a unified sound, given that the assembled multitude was actually composed of four choirs, ranging from the Santa Rosa High School ... more
Where were you at 22? Just graduating from college and trying to find a job? Contemplating a trip around the world to discover yourself? Writing musical masterpieces that would endure for more than 300 years and counting?
If you’re Johann Sebastian Bach or Georg Friedrich Händel, the answers are no, no and yes. Born in the same year (1685) just 125 miles apart, their musical skills were such that both had obtained secure posts by the age of 22 and were already composing enduring works t... more
“Is this my time to be alive and free?” That was the first intelligible question posed by soprano Marie Plette in her impassioned but often incomprehensible rendition of "The Promise of Time," a new song cycle by contemporary composer David Carlson. The work, part of the Magnum Opus project for new music, was performed Saturday by the Santa Rosa Symphony in a concert that also featured standard repertoire by Jean Sibelius: the Violin Concerto (with soloist Tedi Papavrami) and the Symphony No. 5.... more
At 31, Alondra de la Parra is a conductor of immense promise, destined to lead a major orchestra — but first she has to work her way up through the minor leagues. Fortunately for Napa County, she made a brief stop Sunday with the Napa Valley Symphony, and the results were gratifying.
The concert took place at the recently restored, 1950s-era Lincoln Theater in Yountville, home to the French Laundry and other avatars of gastronomic and oenophilic excess. The local industry is much in evi... more
Jon Nakamatsu has small hands but a big heart. That anatomic mismatch was abundantly evident during his appearance with the Santa Rosa Symphony on May 7, which featured a swoon-inducing rendition of Tchaikovsky’s canonic first piano concerto. From the familiar opening to the thrilling conclusion, the petite Nakamatsu held the audience in thrall, as much by his prodigious technique as his elegant phrasing.
He began lightly, playing the opening chords with little sustain and zero bombast.... more
How many performances of the Jupiter Symphony does it take to turn on a light bulb above the head of attentive listeners? In the case of the Santa Rosa Symphony, only one. Despite a few minor flaws, their rendition of this beloved classic on Feb. 12 was incandescent, glowing with the warm light that Mozart sheds over Earth and other planets.
With his precise style and brisk tempos, Bruno Ferrandis is a natural Mozart conductor. Glancing only occasionally at a diminutive pocket score, he... more
Playing a requiem is a strange way to celebrate the holidays. At a time when people are looking for a bit of cheer, the Santa Rosa Symphony took the opposite approach for its Dec. 4 concert, offering not only the Fauré Requiem, but also the world premiere of Aubert Lemeland’s “Battle Pieces,” inspired by soldiers’ poems about death. Sandwiched between these two was the somewhat more festive Gloria by Francis Poulenc.
Regardless of the season, the Fauré Requiem was the highlight of the s... more
The Santa Rosa Symphony consists of about six dozen talented musicians, but during their Nov. 6 performance at the Wells Fargo Center, piano soloist Valentina Lisitsa completely stole the show. This thirty-something, blond-haired, steely-fingered Ukrainian-American is beyond talented. Her technical virtuosity easily matches any pianist of her generation, and her musicality is out of this world.
The Symphony, under Music Director Bruno Ferrandis, set the stage for Lisitsa with a spirited... more
Chamber music ensembles come and go, sometimes in their entirety, sometimes player by player. When a first violinist leaves a string quartet, for example, the group either dissolves or scrambles to find a replacement. Rarely, however, do two players leave at once, but such is the case with the Czech Republic’s two-decade-old Skampa String Quartet, which appeared for its concert in Occidental on Oct. 23 boasting not one but two new violinists since its last appearance in Sonoma County two years a... more
For the opening set of the Santa Rosa Symphony’s 2010-11 season, Music Director Bruno Ferrandis chose four Italian works, perhaps in acknowledgement of that culture’s immense influence on musical history.
The concert began promisingly with a fine rendition of Verdi’s overture to the opera “La Forza del Destino.” The Symphony, augmented by about a dozen players from the Youth Orchestra, played with conviction and solidity. Ferrandis sustained the rhythmic drive throughout, and the brass ... more
Patrons returning for the second half of Monday night’s Santa Rosa Symphony concert witnessed the unusual sight of five microphones: one to the left of the conductor’s podium, next to a black stool, and four to the right, with accompanying chairs. The stool and chairs were soon occupied, respectively, by vocal soloist Ute Lemper and the male vocal ensemble Hudson Shad.
These peculiar forces and accoutrements had been assembled by Music Director Bruno Ferrandis for Kurt Weill’s Seven ... more
For its program at Santa Rosa’s Newman Auditorium on April 16, the Amelia Trio opted for three unknown piano trios by known composers: Debussy, Bernstein and Chopin. All three trios are the works of teenagers, composed around the ages of 18 (Debussy), 19 (Bernstein) and 18 (Chopin). Although they all qualify as juvenilia, each trio already contains many elements of the composer’s characteristic style.
Those characteristics were evident during the opening bars of the Debussy, which were ... more
In the old days, barbers were also surgeons, as adept with a scalpel as a razor, their red-and-white barber pole an emblem of both surgery (red) and hair-cutting (white). At its Jan. 23 concert, the well-coiffed Santa Rosa Symphony enacted this dual role, offering both some serious blood (from a real Barber) and an bit of hair-trimming (from Carter, Corigliano and Copland).
First to the Barber blood, which was last on the program but well worth the wait. For many classical listeners, Sa... more
In a 1778 letter to his father, Mozart observed, “It is far easier to play a thing quickly than slowly.” The truth of Mozart’s observation has been borne out repeatedly in the intervening centuries, as virtuosos of all stripes have sought to dazzle their audiences with high-speed prestidigitation, often at the expense of musical beauty.
Not so with cellist Steven Isserlis and pianist Kirill Gerstein, who bewitched a capacity crowd at Santa Rosa’s Newman Auditorium Jan. 8 with a re... more
Beethoven's Ninth Symphony has been played repeatedly in Sonoma County during the past decade, beginning with a memorable performance by the Santa Rosa Symphony under Jeffrey Kahane in the aftermath of 9/11. That event was so successful that several other renditions followed, including one in the Sonoma State University gym. The culmination, however, arrived at the Wells Fargo Center on Saturday, with a spine-tingling presentation by the Santa Rosa Symphony under Music Director Bruno Ferrandis.
On reading the score of Antonín Dvořák’s magnificent Cello Concerto in B Minor, Op. 104, Dvořák's mentor Brahms is reputed to have said, “Why on earth didn’t I know that one could write a cello concerto like this? If I had only known, I would have written one long ago!”
What Dvořák knew was that the cello could be a soaring solo instrument, on a par with the violin, if placed in the proper orchestral context. With its low register, a solo cello is often in danger of being... more
Rach 3 scored a 10/10 at the Santa Rosa Symphony season opener on 10/10, and will presumably do the same on 10/11 and 10/12. The first 10 (for style) goes to Jeffrey Kahane, who infused Rachmaninoff’s late-Romantic masterpiece with thoroughly modern passion and drive. The second 10 (for technical difficulty) goes to Bruno Ferrandis and his attentive musicians, who provided the perfect foil for Kahane’s pyrotechnics.
The highly anticipated performance of Rachmaninoff’s third piano concer... more
The Numina concert in Santa Rosa’s Church of the Incarnation Aug. 23 was billed as “An Artful Afternoon,” and it was certainly full of art. Canvases by the venerable Boris Ilyn filled the north wall of Farlander Hall, and musical art of many eras—Baroque, Classical, Romantic, Modern—emanated from a performance space along the windowed east, with its view of the church’s cloister. The only distraction was the relentless hum of a refrigerator from the kitchen, tempered somewhat by the post-concer... more
Olivier Messiaen’s 10-movement Turangalîla-Symphonie is rarely performed because of its length (about an hour and a quarter) and its unusual instrumentation (the score calls for ondes martenot, vibraphone, and glockenspiel, among many other instruments). The double whammy makes performances of this 20th-century masterpiece hard to find — and fund.
For the second half of its May 16 concert, the Santa Rosa Symphony tried to solve the Turangalîla problem by performing only t... more
A ballet suite is not a symphony, but don’t tell that to Bruno Ferrandis. Throwing caution to the winds, Maestro Ferrandis programmed not one but two ballet suites for the April 19 concert by the Santa Rosa Symphony, opening with selections from Aram Khachaturian’s Gayane and devoting the entire second half to a suite of suites from Sergei Prokofiev’s Cinderella. Only an obscure, two-movement cello concerto by Nikolai Miaskovsky broke the long string of dance numbers.
Franz Joseph Haydn was not quite as prolific with masses as with symphonies, but he did he write 14 of the former nonetheless. For their annual Good Friday concert on April 10, the St. Cecilia Choir joined forces with Cantiamo, the Incarnation Orchestra, four soloists and conductor J. Karla Lemon to perform No. 12, the Theresienmesse, in the Church of the Incarnation in Santa Rosa.
The crowded conditions around the altar were more than reflected in the church itself, where ushers... more
In his March 19 recital at Zellerbach Hall in Berkeley, pianist Murray Perahia played the three Bs — Bach, Beethoven and Brahms — with a Schubert encore at the end supplying the plural S. His program ranged from the high Baroque (Bach’s Partita No. 6 in E minor) to the late Classical (Beethoven’s “Pastorale” Sonata, Op. 28) to the full-blown Romantic (Brahms’s “Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel,” a work that embodies the radical transformation of musical style from the 18th to 19th ... more
Symphony programs often resemble three-ring circuses, organized in time rather than space. In the first ring, the symphony offers an overture or similar fare to whet your aural appetite. Then, in the center ring, comes the main attraction, usually a soloist displaying his chops in a concerto or other showpiece. The final ring is reserved for a symphony or other lengthy work that exhibits the orchestra in its full glory.
The Santa Rosa Symphony’s program on Feb. 21 at the Wells Fargo Cen... more
Before the Santa Rosa Symphony began its concert Saturday, the public-address announcer said there would be a short presentation on behalf of the Youth Orchestra. A tall, red-headed young woman then rose from the concertmaster’s chair and offered an exquisite reading of a brief, unidentified Romantic violin solo. After the applause, the Youth Orchestra manager strode to the stage, identified the soloist as the orchestra’s concertmistress, and informed the audience that the ensemble was only $10,... more
Every string quartet has to start somewhere. For the Afiara String Quartet, that somewhere includes the Occidental Community Church, where they performed on Jan. 17.
The Afiara is quite young and relatively new, having formed at the San Francisco Conservatory in 2006. Blessed with impeccable academic credentials, they are currently teaching assistants to the Alexander String Quartet at San Francisco State University.
Whether the Afiara’s credentials translate into solid music-m... more
In the publicity photo for his solo appearances with the Santa Rosa Symphony, violinist Gilles Apap is shown holding his instrument sideways, with the F-holes facing out and his goateed chin resting on the bottom edge, far from the actual chin rest. One assumes that the photo captures him in a moment of repose or contemplation, since playing the violin in such an awkward position would be virtually impossible. Impossible, it turns out, for anyone but Apap, who really does play his violin sideway... more
Shortly after taking the stage at the Occidental Community Church on Oct. 18, Gertrud Weinmeister, the violist of the Hugo Wolf Quartet, observed that Sonoma County resembles Vienna in its profusion of hillside vineyards. She further noted that all three composers on the Vienna-based ensemble’s program — Haydn, Schubert and Berg — were wine lovers.
Music and wine have a lot in common. Most fundamentally, both transform reality for a finite amount of time: music for as long the song endu... more
An old joke observes that a string quartet consists of a good violinist, a bad violinist, an ex-violinist (the violist) and someone who hates violinists (the cellist). While the last two characterizations may still hold true, it’s getting harder and harder to tell the violins apart. For the second concert in a row at the Russian River Chamber Music series, the violinists switched chairs midway through the performance.
For last month’s concert by the Rossetti String Quartet, the violin ... more
Inspiration is hard to come by. Abundant proof of that truism was in evidence at the Rossetti String Quartet performance in Healdsburg on Sept. 5, as part of the Russian River Chamber Music (RRCM) series. This talented and accomplished foursome—one of hundreds of such groups currently performing—showed occasional flashes of brilliance but mostly settled for the ordinary.
String quartets are flourishing these days. There are more than a dozen professional quartets in California alone, in... more
In newspaper ads touting his appearances with the Santa Rosa Symphony, Christopher O'Riley wore a black T-shirt, the better to show off a massive henna tattoo running the length of his arm, right down to the ends of his fingers. In his April 12 concert, the tattoo was no longer in evidence, but he did manage to tattoo the symphony's resident Steinway with some of the richest sounds to emerge from that instrument in a long time.
Clad in a knee-length black coat, O'Riley got right to work... more
The March 1 concert by the Jupiter String Quartet and clarinetist Jose Franch-Ballester at the Occidental Community Church drew a remarkable crowd--not in terms of numbers (the concerts there are often sold out), but rather in terms of age. After squeezing into one of the few remaining pew seats, I looked around and beheld crowds of young faces, perhaps a third of the audience. This was not your usual chamber music crowd; nor is the Jupiter String Quartet your usual chamber music ensemble.
The Borromean Islands consist of three small islands and two islets in Lake Maggiore, near the town of Stresa, in northern Italy. In this beautiful location almost 20 years ago, four young musicians from the Curtis Institute decided to form a string quartet. They settled on the serendipitous name of Borromeo, a reference not only to the islands but also to the illustrious Italian family that has owned most of the outcroppings since the fourteenth century.
The Santa Rosa Symphony concert on Feb. 18 featured gifted local players, an internationally recognized soloist, and a superb conductor; but the real star was the sea, as evoked in a memorable performance of Debussy's "La Mer." The other works on the program (by Dutilleux, Beethoven and Fauré) paled in comparison to this French impressionist masterpiece.
The evening began not with music but with an evident change in the string sections. With the exception of concertmaster Joseph Edelbe... more
In pursuit of the dragon Fafner, the mythical hero Siegfried pauses to hear the forest murmur, tries to imitate a bird, gives up, gets hold of a fiddle instead, plays until the moon rises, then buckles himself to the dragon's tail for a wild ride through the firmament. That, more or less, was the synopsis for the Santa Rosa Symphony's Jan. 28 concert at the Wells Fargo Center.
Although the symphony played four diverse pieces from three different centuries, including the present one, th... more
Between Beethoven and Brahms lurks--Onute Narbutaite. At least that's the version of music history proposed by the Vilnius String Quartet at their sold-out concert in the Occidental Community Church on Jan. 19. One hears Beethoven and Brahms all the time, but Narbutaite--a contemporary female Lithuanian composer--is a rarity in American concert halls. If the performance by her fellow Lithuanians is any indication, she deserves more frequent hearing.
As befits its name, Music in the Vineyards is as much about the venues as it is about the music. Encompassing nine Napa Valley wineries and the Napa Valley Museum over a three-week run, the festival allows music to shine through rosé-colored glasses.
This year's festival culminated with three weekend concerts at the venerable Silverado Vineyards, just off the Silverado Trail on the valley's somewhat less traveled east side. In keeping with the Mexican California theme, the concerts were... more
Chamber music is probably not the first thing that springs to the minds of barrel-room visitors at Markham Vineyards in St. Helena. True to its name, two sides of the large rectangular space are lined floor to ceiling with 60-gallon oak barrels filled with Napa Valley's finest. The floors are concrete, the walls are stone, and the wood ceiling is both high and peaked.
These features, so conducive to storing wine, are also suitable for containing small groups of musicians, as they did on... more
Lang Lang. San Francisco Symphony. Carnegie Hall. Those were the three big names on the lips of speakers at a donor gathering in the Green Music Center at Sonoma State University on New Year’s Day. The upshot was that all three big names will be involved with the upcoming season in the new facility, beginning with a Sept. 29 appearance by Chinese superstar pianist Lang Lang. The San Franciscans, led by conductor Michael Tilson Thomas, will follow soon thereafter, with four subscription concerts ... more
Note: The following presentation was made prior to a performance of the Debussy string quartet at the Schulz Museum in Santa Rosa on July 26, 2009.
Good afternoon, and welcome to the Charles M. Schulz Museum. My name is Steve Osborn, and I’m the violist for the Felix String Quartet, which includes John Thompson on first violin, Diane Peterson on second, and Michael Fecskes on cello. We’re all local musicians with day jobs. We get together about once a week to play string q... more
The enjoyment of chamber music depends heavily on the acoustic friendliness of the spaces in which the music is performed. A bad acoustic can slam the lid on an otherwise great concert, muffling sound in a virtual coffin. Although Sonoma County has more than its fair share of acoustically dead halls—led by the notorious Wells Fargo Center and the lamentable Jackson Theater—there are a few bright spots, several of which are offering great chamber music programs this fall.