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SYMPHONY REVIEW
American Philharmonic Sonoma County / Sunday, October 13, 2013
Norman Gamboa, conductor. Bonnie Brooks, mezzo-soprano

Conductor Norman Gamboa

SMOOTH SAILING IN SEASON'S FIRST APSC CONCERT

by Terry McNeill
Sunday, October 13, 2013

In a program with water and ocean themes the American Philharmonic Sonoma County (APSC) opened their 15th season Oct. 12 and 13 in Santa Rosa High School’s Performing Arts Center. The day was sunny and dry but the music was a saturated with color and often radiance.

Mendelssohn’s charming overture Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage, Op. 27, opened the concert with strong playing in all sections, notably in the brass and the horns playing fluttering phrases. Conductor Norman Gamboa moved the orchestra ship steadily towards home port, presaged by a blaring trumpet fanfare and fine flute playing by Emily Reynolds.

Mezzo-soprano Bonnie Brooks joined a reduced-size APSC in two melancholic works: Elgar’s Sea Pictures and Barber’s Dover Beach. Both are mostly contemplative and eschew splashy vocal lines. Ms. Brooks used the score for each and her mellow voice was secure throughout its range, with warm resonance in the chest voice. Elgar’s five Pictures are alternatively leisurely and declamatory and Ms. Brooks mastered each, especially projecting the third Picture Sabbath Morning at Sea with considerable power. The long and dramatic The Swimmer was sung in a powerful duo with the orchestra, though at places the orchestra’s sound covered the soloist.

Following intermission the early and still popular Barber work was heard, in his orchestration for strings from the original 1931 version for baritone and string quartet. Even more than the Elgar Dover Beach is a dark journey and Ms. Brooks gave it a melancholy and woeful characterization, changing often and deftly her vibrato. It was somber but assured singing.

The enlarged orchestra hit its stride with the concluding Debussy masterpiece, La Mer. Mr. Gamboa was in no hurry to get any place and throughout took tempos that underscored the rich colorations and subtlety of instrumentation. Harpists Constance Koo and Laura Simpson played lovely passages solo and supporting the strings, and Mary Kremec’s piccolo playing was lyrically distinctive. At the beginning of the second “Play of the Waves” movement the entrances were ragged but soon the conductor had all under control and this evocative scherzo became convivial.

In the finale the muted horns, including Eric Anderson resonate high G, carried to the back of the hall, along with cornetist David Lindgren's triumphant call to action near the end. Mr. Gamboa understands how to balance disparate section parts, allowing small duos from flutist Debra Scheuerman and oboist Chris Krive to be easily heard above the dense orchestral texture. Especially telling was the conductor’s control when he inserted many small crescendos. It was a richly satisfying reading of opulent music.

At intermission conductor emeritus Gabriel Sakakeeny spoke engagingly from the stage about the APSC’s librarian, Harry Fry, who died in 2011. Mr. Fry was described as a “crusader for beauty and truth” in music, and Mr. Sakakeeny’s anecdotes elicited happy memories from many of the insouciant Mr. Fry’s friends in the audience. Barbara Fry and her daughter Susan Fry Lee were present and had underwritten the Saturday and Sunday programs.