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SYMPHONY REVIEW
Santa Rosa Symphony / Monday, February 18, 2008
Bruno Ferrandis, conductor
Ingrid Fliter, piano

Ingrid Fliter

AN OCEAN OF SOUND

by Steve Osborn
Monday, February 18, 2008

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 Edelberg and the principal violists, all the first and second chairs were either new or shuffled upward from the ranks. The same held true for the rest of the strings: some familiar faces but lots of new ones. As shown in "The Freeway Philharmonic," KQED's recent documentary about freelance musicians, the personnel in the Santa Rosa Symphony and other regional orchestras is constantly shifting. What is remarkable is how well Maestro Bruno Ferrandis is able to hold the orchestra together, despite its protean tendencies. Who knows what he could accomplish if his musicians didn't keep changing from concert to concert?

Speaking of inconstancy, the opening work, Henri Dutilleux's Métaboles, from 1965, was all about change. The work offered five slowly metabolizing movements, each one demonstrating how a musical idea can develop through orchestration, dynamics, phrasing, and other tricks in the composer's bag. The names of the movements speak for themselves: Incantatory, Linear, Obsessional, Torpid, and Flamboyant.

"Incantatory" was just that, beginning with plucked strings and light percussion, then gradually adding winds and brass. As the texture thickened, the strings broke out their bows, moving from individual droplets to waves of connected notes. "Linear" began with a beautiful solo from the freelance principal cellist (her name didn't appear in the program) and proceeded linearly through the orchestra at a luxurious pace. Attention in the next two movements shifted to the brass, which played jazz-like riffs above a walking bass line. The sound was often reminiscent of Miles Davis and Gil Evans recordings from the 1950s. The "Flamboyant" finale began with a rapid ostinato figure in the violas that got passed around until nearly every section in the orchestra was playing its own riff. The inevitable crescendo and climax were impressive, if somewhat predictable.

After the full-throated and resonant sonorities of the Dutilleux, the reduced forces employed for Beethoven's Second Piano Concerto sounded somewhat muted. It took a while to get used to the sonorities of an orchestra dominated by strings, with only a few token woodwinds and no brass or percussion. The emptiness could have been filled by the piano soloist, Ingrid Fliter, but her attack was so pointed and sharp that the notes didn't have much chance to resonate. At times, she made the upper registers sound almost like a fortepiano.

Fliter is clearly an accomplished pianist who can play all the notes, but she tends to let go of phrases too early and let them fade into nothingness. The various sections of the opening movement didn't flow into each other, leaving the impression of discrete passages rather than a connected work. In the slow movement, her touch was too heavy, and the piano didn't resonate. Her playing improved in the final movement, however, which she danced through in true Rondo form.

The second half of the concert opened with a delightful rendition of Gabriel Fauré's "Masques et bergamasques," a suite that he assembled after the First World War by orchestrating some of his older works. The four sections--Overture, Minuet, Gavotte, and Pastorale--come across like piano miniatures, full of life and energy. Maestro Ferrandis was clearly in his element, using a light touch to blend the orchestra and make it dance. He is truly a joy to watch, with his sweeping gestures and intricate hand movements. Each one means something to the orchestra, which in this case translated his gyrations into music of ravishing simplicity and joy. If only Fauré had written more.

In contrast to Fauré's string of pearls, Debussy's "La Mer" is an intricate necklace, painstakingly assembled from a treasure chest of sonic jewels. Debussy's orchestration is second to none, and he employs all the forces at his disposal to create a dynamic portrait of the sea in all its moods and weathers. Harnessing all those forces and moving them forward is the conductor's job, one that Ferrandis never shirks from. He emphasized fluidity above all, coaxing the orchestra to swell and recede like waves in constant motion. He also brought out the narrative line that sustains the listener's interest throughout the work.

The first movement, with its evocation of dawn over the sea gradually brightening to noon, moved inexorably forward, building to a spine-tingling moment at the end, when an imagined sun bursts forth in all its glory. The second movement, "Play of the waves," was dominated by a shimmering pair of expertly played harps, but the third movement was all Ferrandis, one's eyes drawn again and again to his perpetually moving hands and fingers. At one moment, all the fingers on his left hand are splayed out; then the thumb and index join together to form a circle, all the while moving up and down. An instant later, he gives a cue with his index finger, then opens his palms as if to beseech the orchestra for more sound. Just as quickly, the fingers spring to his lips, quieting the tempest. And all the while, his right hand grips the baton, giving a steady and unwavering beat.

The effect was magical, impressive, unforgettable. Santa Rosa is really lucky to have a conductor of Ferrandis's caliber. His musicians may come from the "Freeway Philharmonic," but he's a master at directing traffic.