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SYMPHONY REVIEW
American Philharmonic, Sonoma County / Sunday, April 27, 2008
Gabriel Sakakeeny

Gabriel Sakakeeny

A TRIUMPH OF INSPIRED PROGRAMMING

by Terry McNeill
Sunday, May 18, 2008

Season finales for orchestras seem always to be memorable events, and the American Philharmonic Sonoma County concert on May 18 was no exception. Before an audience of 900 at the Wells Fargo Center, the county's 'other' orchestra provided a rousing ending to an adventuresome season.

How adventuresome' In earlier concerts this season, this orchestra of mainly non-professional performers played Stravinsky's 'Rite of Spring' and Scriabin's 'Poem of Ecstasy.' Sunday's menu, aimed at young attendees, shunned the usual 'Peter and the Wolf' and 'Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra,' offering instead five substantial and varied works.

Music Director Gabriel Sakakeeny began in a romantic vein, speaking to the assemblage of the tribulations of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, and then conducting Tchaikovsky's 'Overture-Fantasy' about the doomed lovers. The beginning in the bassoon and clarinet sections was shaky, but it was to be the last pesky playing of a glorious afternoon. Sakakeeny made the most of generally slow tempos to bring out the thematic richness. The cello section was especially sumptuous.

How better to follow the lush Tchaikovsky than with the pungent and now almost equally popular 'Short Ride in a Fast Machine' by California composer John Adams' This joyous minimalist work from 1981, a precursor to 'The Chairman Dances,' begins with a woodblock playing more loudly than the orchestra, which is already at forte, and continues for just four minutes. Sakakeeny kept the hurtling rhythms in check. An Arizona composer friend once lamented that Adams's great success was partially due to using snazzy titles, but here the 'Short Ride' was appropriate and telling.

Completing the first half was another sonic reversal, the 300-year old Concerto for Two Trumpets by Tomaso Albinoni. Soloists Daniel Norris and Thomas Hyde played what I think were B-flat piccolo trumpets. The opening theme was a call to action, with the bright sounds from the adept solo playing easily cutting through the orchestral fabric. Only the most rapid passage work gave the soloists any clarity trouble. It was a celebratory concerto, well played in a Baroque style. Was it a nod to ancient practice to have half the ensemble standing, and half seated'

There is a mystical and religious feel to most of the compositions of Alan Hovhaness (1911-2000), and in his 1970 work 'And God Created Great Whales' the effects are memorable: pre-recorded yelps, snores and grunts of various whales, along with some aleatory parts for the players. The string tremolos, first appearing in the bass viols and then in the violas and violins, were evocative, as were the harp solos and descending trombone slides. An inspired selection, skillfully performed.

The concert concluded with Respighi's colorfully scored 'Pines of Rome,' a four-movement 1924 work. The opening Via Borghese section depicted youthful frolics in Rome's great park, followed by chilling bass sounds from the depths, Catacombs. The highlights came in the Janiculum section, with prismatic arpeggio flourishes from the orchestra's pianist leading to haunting solos from the clarinet, harp, celesta and oboe. The recorded voice of a nightingale provided a benediction.

The brilliant march of the concluding Pines of the Appian Way spotlights off-stage brass and English horn solos, driving the music to an inexorable climax, a champagne orgy of sound fitted to a marching Roman army outbound on a quest for empire. The orchestra's brass section made a generous contribution to the surround-sound effect. Here one couldn't quibble with the Wells Fargo Center's acoustics, as the dramatic effects brought listeners into the army's Appian Way column and ultimately to their feet.

Sakakeeny has said that repertoire choice is crucial to the success of the American Philharmonic, perhaps more so than for the Santa Rosa Symphony or even the San Francisco. People come to the last two orchestras often by tradition, but the American Phil lives or dies by providing familiar and sporadically challenging music to listeners, many of whom are having their initial symphony experience. The orchestra is meeting this need, and their concert was a triumph of inspired programming and adroit playing.