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SYMPHONY REVIEW
Santa Rosa Symphony / Sunday, October 8, 2023
Francesco Lecce-Chong, conductor; Olga Kern, piano

Conductor Francesco Lecce-Chong Oct. 8

THEATRICAL SIBELIUS SYMPHONY HIGHLIGHTS SRS'S OPENING WEEKEND CONCERTS

by Terry McNeill
Sunday, October 8, 2023

The 96th season of the Santa Rosa Symphony began with three Weill Hall concerts featuring conventional and popular works. Conventional yes, but the result can be wonderful when played as well as the Orchestra is playing. The Sunday Oct. 8 afternoon concert is reviewed here.

Sibelius’ D Major Second Symphony was easily the highlight in a monumental 54-minute reading led by conductor Francesco Lecce-Chong. Tempos throughout were never rushed, the potent strings of this professional Orchestra supporting the winds, though often starting just after the beat where the winds were on the beat. Andrew Lewis’ timpani playing was first cabin in each of the four movements, and he seems to control a pianissimo sound perfectly, as well as a big sound when the composer demands.

The flute solos from Stacey Pelinka and Kathleen Reynolds were chirpy in the opening “Allegretto”, contrasting with deep sound, often pizzicato, coming from the seven contrabass and eight cellos, and the resounding horn performance from Alex Camphouse. His playing was wonderfully loud and pungent. Love those horns.

In the following Andante the conductor took extra time in the three pauses, the silences letting more air into the piece and highlighting the tympani rolls. Laura Reynold’s sterling oboe playing characterized the third movement, leading to the first of five climaxes, the third being the 75-second climb where the great theme broke out gloriously through the hall to my balcony seat. Sibelius, like Shostakovich and Tchaikovsky, generates great symphonic climaxes.

The composer’s many repeated notes in melodies were all over the finale, the brass snarling and Mr. Lecce-Chong’s control over sections never allowed this thrilling music to lose momentum. Of course a standing ovation occurred, with more orchestra members being called out for bows with the conductor.

Grieg’s A Minor Piano Concerto has had recent local hearings, with the San Francisco Symphony, Vallejo Symphony and with soloist Stephen Prutsman and the Mendocino Music Festival in late July. Here Symphony management (and audience) favorite Olga Kern played the 1868 work with a warm tonal sound in a generally low temperature rhapsodic way, eschewing high drama and any marked interpretative interest. Well, it’s that kind of piece, fluent from the initial piano rolling left-hand figures to the many small duets – horn, trumpets, oboe.

Ms. Kern’s solid octave playing (conventional and interlocking) never failed her and the Allegro Molto’s thematic flourishes connected well with the clarinet and bassoon lines and her quick cross-hand technique was impressive. From the audience of 1,100 there was the longest first-movement concerto applause in memory.

The lovely Adagio in D Flat was performed lyrically and leisurely with muted violins, even trills in the piano and a memorable horn solo.

Temperate playing continued into the finale and its beguiling folk song theme. Ms. Kern’s arpeggios were sustained by Kelley Maulbetsch's cello solo, and the Concerto built to a long climax and a short piano cadenza of considerable sonority. A loud ovation commenced, and the soloist and conductor recognized several musicians in the Orchestra.

Avoiding tradition of the season’s first concert with no playing of the Star Spangled Banner, the SRS did play the Polonaise from Tchaikovsky’s Opera Eugene Onegin, and Michael Djupstrom’s 10-minute Suite From the Northern Wilds. The work depicts the flow of the Missouri River from source to end, and turned out to be a bucolic journey that sounded immediately “American” with hints of Virgil Thompson and early Walter Piston. The chimes and triangle sound gave the music at places a splendid shimmer, and the Orchestra played Northern Wilds convincingly and with rich string coloration.

The composer addressed the audience from the stage about the human activities affecting the natural world, and in an earlier pre-concert stage talk Symphony Board President Keven Brown spoke effervescently about the coming season and the accomplishments of the stellar musicians and conductor.