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SYMPHONY REVIEW
American Philharmonic Sonoma County / Sunday, February 5, 2012
Evan Craves, conductor;
Elena Ulyanova, piano

CRAVES DISPATCHES FLASHY PIECES IN EXCITING APSC CONCERT AT WELLS

by Terry McNeill
Sunday, February 5, 2012

Sonoma County’s insouciant American Philharmonic opened the first of its three spring concerts Feb. 5 with the Corsair Overture of Berlioz, and the work characterized the entire afternoon in the Wells Fargo Center – loud, flashy, trenchant and exciting.

Music Director candidate Evan Craves, formerly the APSC’s concertmaster, conducted largely without score, rare today and especially given the works at hand. It was even rare in the past, though Von Bulow conducted Tristan, Meistersinger and all the Beethoven Symphonies without music, as well and then playing the cycle of Beethoven Piano Sonatas. But now a conductor’s score is usually needed, and Mr. Craves looked at one only during the short Mahler work which appeared second on the program. The Berlioz was given quick a ride of just over nine minutes, the strings playing presto phrases and finally finding their unison footing well into the piece. The full brass section sounded triumphant. Here, and in the program’s final work, Miranda Kincaid’s bassoon playing was exemplary.

A sea change in sound occurred with the following Adagietto movement from Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. A signature piece for Santa Rosa Symphony conductor Corrick Brown in Wells, Mr. Craves’ languorous conception played off the beguiling notes from the harp with rich lower string playing, eliciting a broad vibrato and a shimmering sound. The hall was breathlessly quiet.

Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 34, concluded the first half with pianist Elena Ulyanova as soloist. The artist has been heard locally before in recitals for Concerts Grand and Robert Hayden’s Oakmont Concerts, and her playing in the lush set of 24 variations was similar to that of past appearances – highly dramatic and underscoring top treble notes and clearly articulating scale passages. Percussive sforzandos abound in Ms. Ulyanova’s conceptions, grabbing a listener’s attention but ultimately sounding affected. The pianist has a lovely pianissimo touch but at times at the quietest levels left-hand notes failed to sound. Perhaps the adage that one can’t play a real pianissimo in a large hall applies. The venerable 18th Variation in D Major (andante cantabile) was surprisingly played simply and with sparse ritards at the two climaxes. Ensemble with Mr. Craves was good.

To the applause of 800 Ms. Ulyanova added an encore, Scarlatti’s Sonata in B, K. 377, with driving momentum and a dry detache touch.

Kurt Erickson’s Toccata for Orchestra opened the second half, Mr. Craves holding the segmented piece together with thematic sections being traded off between strings, brass and winds. The Philharmonic made the best of the minimalist riffs, off-beat accents and entrances. Debra Ortega played the prominent piccolo part and the composer came to the stage to acknowledge the ovation.

A riot of scintillating orchestral sound came with the complete music from Falla’s 1919 ballet El Sombrero de Tres Picos, closing the program with much of the best playing of the afternoon. Again shunning a score, remarkable as the piece has manifold short sections, Mr. Craves drew an intoxicating blend of sonority from the APSC. Outstanding soloists included soprano Jody Benecke in two Flamenco-tinged arias, Nicholas Xenelis' limpid clarinet artistry, tympanist Gabe Sakakeeny, hornist Eric Anderson and Suzanne Eraldi's English horn. The music is crammed with startling effects, ranging from hand claps and raucous castanets to long Andalusian lines in the brass, and the suite sounded shorter than the 24 minutes of playing time, due to the conductor’s diligent control of his resonant musicians.

There was subtlety in the sonic commotion, typical of the entire afternoon’s performance.