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Recital
ECLECTIC PIANISM IN SPRING LAKE VILLAGE VIRTUAL RECITAL
by Terry McNeill
Wednesday, May 5, 2021
During the pandemic The Santa Rosa Symphony’s virtual concerts received their due in performance praise, but another series, Spring Lake Village, more quietly presented monthly virtual concerts to a select local audience. May 5 saw the latest event, produced by impresario Robert Hayden, and feature...
Symphony
SONIC CONTRASTS HIGHLIGHT SANTA ROSA SYMPHONY SPRING PROGRAM
by Terry McNeill
Sunday, April 25, 2021
In a curious mixture of compositions, the Santa Rosa Symphony’s penultimate virtual concert of the season April 25 unfolded in ways both highly satisfying and a bit perplexing. Directed by resident Music Director Francesco Lecce-Chong, the event followed a familiar format – several contemporary wor...
Symphony
ZUILL PLAYS ZWILICH WITH SANTA ROSA SYMPHONY
by Steve Osborn
Sunday, March 28, 2021
The Santa Rosa Symphony took a cautious step toward the return of live music in their March 28 virtual concert by sharing the stage with an actual live soloist rather than an apparition. Star cellist Zuill Bailey was still masked, and his back was toward the equally masked and plexiglassed orchestra...
Chamber
ECLECTIC CELLO PIANO VIRTUAL RECITAL FROM TOMKINS ZIVIAN DUO
by Terry McNeill
Sunday, March 28, 2021
The venerable 41-year Redwood Arts Council Series in Occidental has joined the virtual recital world with low budget but artistically satisfying programs, mostly using videos filmed in the performer’s residences. March 28 saw the Tanya Tomkins-Eric Zivian duo present an eclectic program from their ...
Symphony
SANTA ROSA SYMPHONY HITS THE SWEET SPOT
by Steve Osborn
Sunday, February 28, 2021
Small orchestras can inhabit a sweet spot between chamber ensembles and full orchestras, but how well they hit that spot depends on the composer's orchestration and the players' ability to project. That dependence was on full display in the Santa Rosa Symphony's Feb. 28 concert, which featured three...
Chamber
NOVEL OBOE-HARPSICHORD RECITAL FROM AIKEN DUO IN UKIAH
by Terry McNeill
Sunday, February 21, 2021
Oboe and harpsichord recitals are a rare North Bay event, even in a pandemic environment where a formal hall setting isn’t available. So it was a delight Feb. 21 to experience on the Ukiah Symphony’s website a recital by Symphony oboist Beth Aiken and harpsichordist husband Tom. The Aiken home vis...
Symphony
A HEALTHY MIX OF TRANSCRIPTIONS AND ORIGINALS FROM THE SR SYMPHONY
by Steve Osborn
Sunday, January 24, 2021
Transcriptions and ascending arpeggios were the order of the day on Jan. 24, as the Santa Rosa Symphony performed uplifting works by Bach/Webern, Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, Marianna Martínes and Mozart. The concert video was made in Weill Hall on Jan. 9. The first transcription was Webern’s 1935 renderi...
Symphony
HEROIC EFFORT FROM THE SANTA ROSA SYMPHONY
by Steve Osborn
Sunday, December 13, 2020
December 13 was a rainy day, perfect for huddling indoors and watching a prerecorded “live” performance by the Santa Rosa Symphony. The program was expansive, with music from the 18th through 21st centuries, and the mood was festive, in keeping with the holiday season. There was something in the fea...
Symphony
MASKED SANTA ROSA SYMPHONY CARRIES ON BRILLIANTLY
by Steve Osborn
Sunday, November 15, 2020
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 behi...
Chamber
SPLENDID STRINGS IN A SUNLIT GARDEN
by Abby Wasserman
Sunday, November 1, 2020
A sun-drenched autumn afternoon, a Marin County garden and six superb string players from the Santa Rosa Symphony were manna from heaven to a pandemic-weary audience starved for live music. The sextet of Santa Rosa Symphony musicians performed to a small group of 20 Nov. 1, the day after Halloween....
CHAMBER REVIEW
SRJC Chamber Concerts / Friday, January 8, 2010
Steven Isserlis, cello, and Kirill Gerstein, piano

Steven Isserlis

STIRRED, NOT SHAKEN

by Steve Osborn
Friday, January 8, 2010


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 recital dominated by slow playing of maximum expressiveness. To be sure, the two of them often made their fingers fly through the air with the greatest of ease, but what sticks in the mind are their languid strolls through the musical landscape, with repeated stops to smell the roses.

The concert was much anticipated in Santa Rosa, where the memory of Isserlis still lingers several decades after his first concerts here, near the beginning of his storied career. “I have to report a rather ghastly fact,” he told the audience during one of his witty introductions. “The first time I played in Santa Rosa, Kirill had not yet been born.”

Now 51, Isserlis still sports a mop of curly shoulder-length hair that he flings to and fro with reckless abandon. In contrast, the 30-year-old Gerstein is crew cut, and his movements on the piano bench are relatively confined.

This clash of styles and appearance was on full display in the opening piece, the Cello Sonata in C by Benjamin Britten. Protectively enfolding his Stradivarius, Isserlis alternately gazed up in the air to his left or glanced at a score on his right, often flinging his mane while in transit. Meanwhile, his left foot floated up and down, following the center of gravity.

The sound that emerged from all this rocking and swaying was of the utmost delicacy, rendered ever so much more so by Isserlis’s use of gut strings. Instead of the jagged edges of their modern, metallic counterparts, which often make cellos sound like a swarm of bees, gut strings produce a rounded, soothing tone, more akin to a purring cat.

Gerstein contributed to the delicacy by barely grazing the keys of the piano and keeping himself firmly in the background. The net effect of all this quietude was a heightened concentration from the audience, which listened to the two musicians in rapt silence.

The Britten — which most of the audience had probably never heard — proved to be a captivating sonata that makes full use of the cello’s sonic possibilities. There were plenty of ringing pizzicatos, slithering glissandos and spiccato bowings. The real standout, however, was the central movement, marked “Elegia: Lento,” where Isserlis milked each note to its full potential. The tone on his low C string was absolutely gorgeous.

A slow third movement, an Intermezzo, was also the highlight of the next piece, Isserlis’ own transcription of a neglected Schumann violin sonata. The sonata has a long and curious history, well told by Isserlis in the program notes. Suffice to say that the transcription sounds great on a cello, provided it’s played by someone who’s able to traverse the cello’s long fingerboard as if it were a violin’s.

Isserlis proved fully capable of playing his cello like a violin, but all the virtuosic display was mere prelude to the heart-wrenching third movement, which Isserlis sang to perfection. All the musical elements of Schumann’s greatest songs were here, except for the lyrics, which would have been superfluous in any event.

Gerstein was primarily in the shadows during both the Britten and Schumann sonatas, but the Rachmaninoff sonata, which occupied the second half, was a different story. Rather than “cello sonata,” the work might be more accurately termed “concerto for piano with one-person cello orchestra.” Or better yet, “Russian novel for two players.”

One could never accuse Rachmaninoff of brevity, and this sonata, with its meandering rivers of sound, can overmaster all but the most cogent performers. Fortunately, both Isserlis and Gerstein proved up to the task, imparting a rhythmic force and narrative drive that sustained the work from its opening cascades of notes to its majestic ending some forty minutes later.

Gerstein, who just won the coveted $300,000 Gilmore Artist Award, proved particularly adept at dynamics, leading off the sonata with a stunning decrescendo that moved from fortissimo to pianissimo in the flicker of an eyelash. Isserlis was great throughout, but once again his most memorable playing occurred in the slow third movement, where he savored the quality of each note, bright glimmers of warmth in a stark Russian landscape.

The instantaneous standing ovation produced but one encore: Fauré’s “Sicilienne,” a suitably languid piece that calmed the audience. When it was over, Isserlis held his cello upside down to prove that he had poured every last note out of it, at least for this memorable concert.