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SYMPHONY REVIEW
Santa Rosa Symphony / Monday, January 28, 2008
Bruno Ferrandis, conducting
Joseph Edelberg, violin

Joseph Edelberg

OUR AVIAN ROOTS

by Steve Osborn
Monday, January 28, 2008

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, the compositional similarities were more striking than the contrasts. Each piece evoked a sylvan landscape, often using that most primordial of musical phrases: bird call. The call is explicit in Wagner's "Forest Murmurs," which opened the program, and nearly as much in Mendelssohn's "Italian" symphony, which closed it two hours later. In between were some distinctly avian melodies in Bach's E major violin concerto and a veritable chorus of two- and three-note calls in George Tsontakis's magical "Clair de Lune."

The Tsontakis was the highlight of the evening. Premiered just last year by the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, the piece consists of two movements: "Moonlit" and "Mischievous--Lullaby." As explained by Maestro Bruno Ferrandis in a brief but insightful introduction, the first movement, with its whole-tone scales and coloristic devices, evokes Debussy; whereas the second, full of joy and jubilation, evokes Messiaen. These pillars of French composition are only a point of reference, however, for Tsontakis has a voice that is distinctly his own: a "free spirit," in his friend Ferrandis's judgment.

The 20-minute piece begins with winds articulating two-note phrases, either ascending or descending, conjuring up a waking forest of birds. The strings then enter on an ascending whole-tone scale, creating a lush sonic landscape ripe for melody, which is eventually supplied in turn by an oboe and a solo violin. The texture throughout is alternately shimmering and dense, like the lunar lighting of the title. The effect was eerie and often mesmerizing.

The second movement was equally delightful, beginning with heavy syncopations and a rock-solid beat, thanks to Ferrandis, that evoked the driving rhythms of the Jazz Age. Short bursts of sound, repeated and varied, were combined like sonic strands of DNA, each new combination assuming a different form of musical life. Climaxes and cadences followed in rapid succession, finally building up to a truly swinging orchestra.

Ferrandis is to be commended for including new works on most of his programs. Based on what he's played so far this season, 21st-century classical music is alive and well; as is 19th-century music, in the person of Felix Mendelssohn. Still flush with the exhilaration of the Tsontakis, the orchestra plunged right into the Italian Symphony, with its familiar pair of opening thirds: dah-dee-dah, dah-dee-dah. Or is that opening birds? The early e-mail program Eudora used to announce new mail with an image of a rooster and an alert sound lifted straight from Mendelssohn. The connection with the earlier bird calls was unmistakable.

The subsequent development, however, was a world apart. Ferrandis is an almost ideal Mendelssohn conductor, with precise, well-engineered movements that bring out all the intricate qualities of the composer's lapidary scores. Every section is exactly in place; the beat is unvarying; the crescendos and decrescendos elegant and smooth. Whereas other conductors get overwhelmed by the mechanism and tradition, Ferrandis infused energy and life into a symphony played for perhaps the millionth time, with many million left to go.

Each movement was remarkable in its own way, from the clarion calls and the great unison strings in the first, to the elegiac march of the second and the superb horn duet in the third. It was amusing to watch Ferrandis's feet as he waltzed back and forth across the podium, his toes almost as expressive as his fingers. The climax, needless to say, came in the last movement, where Ferrandis really pushed the tempo, verging into prestissimo. Amazingly, everyone hung in there, particularly the strings, whose intonation was virtually flawless. A magnificent performance.

The efforts in the first half were less inspired, although the music itself was of considerable interest. The program began with the "Forest Murmurs" sequence from Wagner's opera Siegfried. Once again, bird calls dominated, with flutes, clarinets, and oboes assuming various avian personalities above a murmuring bed of strings. The horns, unfortunately, were somewhat out of tune, so the operatic picture never came into full focus. What was most incongruous, however, was the sight of Ferrandis conducting all of this from a miniature score the size of a paperback novel. Maybe it was the version for puppet opera.

The reduction in size continued with the Bach E major violin concerto. Many players left the stage, leaving just 24 strings, a harpsichord, and the soloist, concertmaster Joseph Edelberg. His performance, though full of insight, was often tense, perhaps because of his unfamiliar role in front of the orchestra rather than within it. Nonetheless, he shaped passages in the opening movement in unusual ways, bringing out notes and phrases that are normally hidden. He seemed to relax more in the unhurried second movement, as Ferrandis coaxed an ethereal sound out of the orchestra's reduced forces. Perhaps because the "Forest Murmurs" were still in the air, the movement seemed to continue the sylvan and avian themes. Finally, the sprightly third movement brought the first half to a satisfying conclusion, rounded out by warm applause.