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SYMPHONY REVIEW

Cellist Sara Sant'Ambrogio of the Eroica Trio

AN EROICA PERFORMANCE FULL OF PASSION AND MOMENTUM

by Terry McNeill
Monday, March 19, 2012

Prospects for exciting Santa Rosa Symphony concert on March 19 were all good: three alluring soloists, two primo Beethoven works and John Adams' beguiling symphonic suite "The Chairman Dances." To a full house in the Wells Fargo Center, the program mix spelled success.

The effervescent suite from Adams’ opera "Nixon in China" (1985) was a shrewd opening. The fabric of sound favored the percussion and tympani sections, whose gongs and woodblocks were often used in spicy syncopation. The piano, played by Kymry Esainko, was a major part of the music and could be heard clearly over the orchestra's minimalistic chord patterns. Percussionists Allen Biggs, Susan Jette and Stan Muney were busy with the composer's manifold demands.

Adams' splendid concert piece mixes the weight and glitter of a big pop band with the finesse of a conventional orchestra, and the fusion works resplendently in ways that later Adams fusion works don't. Conductor Bruno Ferrandis' careful stick control was ideal for juxtaposing the wistful sections with the scintillating rhythmic repetitions and iterations.

Beethoven's C Major Concerto for Violin, Piano and Cello, Op. 56, closed the first half, with the Eroica Trio as soloists. The charm of these soloists was not lost on the audience. Clapping was heavy after the first movement, and there was an ovation after the concluding Rondo. Pianist Erika Nikrenz and violinist Susie Park certainly sounded proficient, but they had less than stellar projection. Ms. Nikrenz used a score, but Ms. Park and cellist Sara Sant'Ambrogio played without one, a telling detail as the Trio has given more than 100 public performances of the Triple Concerto. It’s in their blood.

The playing was fluent throughout and congruent with Mr. Ferrandis' conception and tempos. Instrumental handoff of themes and voice leading were flawless and secure. Ms. Sant'Ambrogio adopted a narrow vibrato but played the principal themes with a creamy legato and a sound that carried over her partners. Beethoven's never-ending innovation was on display in the third movement, the soloists passing the motives back and forth with increasing intensity. Although the performance had plasticity, it was on the whole underplayed, elegant but lacking the big sound that some virtuosos can bring to this sporadically programmed work.

The Trio gave an encore, Piazzola's "Oblivion," an enchanting work that is becoming standard repertoire. Ms. Sant'Ambrogio's vibrato widened considerably in the rich tango colors, pairing perfectly with the violin when the latter moved to the final bars with an exquisite upward portamento slide.

The second half consisted of one piece: Beethoven’s Op. 55 Third Symphony (Eroica). Mr. Ferrandis, with a reduced number of musicians, began briskly but not so abruptly as the iconic "two E-flat pistol shots" from the famous Toscanini recordings. The brass section occasionally overpowered the strings in the opening Allegro con brio, but in the Marcia Funebre Mr. Ferrandis coaxed lovely pianissimo playing from the entire orchestra--the best quiet playing of the evening, clear and sensuous. The unison horn solos in the Scherzo (Darby Hinshaw, Meredith Brown, Alex Camphouse, Susanne Chasalow and Henry Viets) were played with refinement and dead-on pitch. The exciting finale spotlighted the strings singing out the powerful theme, with the bass and cello sections deftly adding pizzicato parts. Principal flute Kathleen Reynolds played graceful and polished scale passages.

Mr. Ferrandis has vivid ideas about this seminal symphony, and he balanced vibrant orchestral played with his familiar section control and exuberance. Were the tempos in this genre-changing work too fast? Not for me as Mr. Ferrandis has a magic wand with such tempos. It was an Eroica performance full of passion, clarity and momentum.