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SYMPHONY REVIEW
Santa Rosa Symphony / Sunday, November 10, 2013
Bruno Ferrandis, conductor. Maya Beiser, cello

RISE AND SHINE

by Steve Osborn
Sunday, November 10, 2013

In the advertising images promoting her Nov. 9-11 appearances with the Santa Rosa Symphony, cellist Maya Beiser is cast as an enchantress, her long golden-brown hair billowing around her brightly light face, centered on her bewitching blue eyes. She holds the cello neck as if it were a wand, preparing to cast a spell over her mesmerized beholders.

The enchantress image continued as Beiser teetered onto the stage on Sunday afternoon, Nov. 10, atop a pair of stiletto heels, with not only her hair, but also a floor-length golden-brown dress wafting behind her like a cumulonimbus cloud. She then spent several anxious moments clambering up the cello podium, rearranging the many folds of her dress to accommodate the cello, and finally fitting bow to string. "She would have done better in a pantsuit," remarked a fashion critic in the row behind me.

Would that wardrobe were Beiser's only problem. The sound that emerged from her instrument at the beginning of Osvaldo Golijov's "Mariel" was thin and hard to hear, despite an electronic pickup attached to the cello's bridge. The piece, originally for cello and marimba, is an elegy for one of the composer's friends, and the intensity of feeling is immediately apparent in the orchestral opening--an intensity that Beiser failed to match.

Beiser's lack of focus was nowhere more evident than in a brief moment when she appeared to lose her grip on the cello's neck and it began sliding downward off the podium. She caught it in plenty of time, however, and her playing thereafter seemed to perk up a bit. By the end, at least some of the remarkable beauty of Golijov's elegy was on display. The Golijov, the last piece in the first half of the concert, was preceded by George Gershwin's "Cuban Overture" and Alberto Ginastera's "Estancia" ballet suite. Both works showed off the Santa Rosa Symphony's virtuosity, fully harnessed by their energetic conductor, Bruno Ferrandis.

Playing to a full house, the Symphony plunged into the "Cuban Overture" at top speed, led by an augmented percussion section. In addition to the usual snare drum, cymbals and wood blocks, the half-dozen percussionists pounded on bongos, shook maracas and scraped the guiro, a serrated instrument that's played with a stick. The lilting Cuban rhythm was infectious, taken up first by the brass and then the strings, who demonstrated that they could swing as much as the drummers. Strong solos from the clarinets and trumpets carried the work to a thrilling conclusion.

Equally thrilling was Ginastera's "Estancia," originally composed in 1941 for a ballet depicting ranch life in Ginastera's native Argentina. Cattle aren't known for their rhythmic flair, but the ranch hands who tend to them appear to favor a vigorous 6/8. That driving, energetic beat dominates the ballet, which features sections such as "Workers on the Land," "Wheat Dance," and "Cattle Men." The culmination is in the final movement, "Malambo," named for an ancient Spanish dance that arrived in Argentina around 1600 and is still spinning heads.

Still clad in her voluminous raiment, Beiser returned to open the second half with Max Bruch's "Kol Nidrei," an Adagio for cello and orchestra based on two powerful Jewish melodies. Eschewing the electronic pickup but making use of an iPad that she controlled with her right foot, Beiser offered a confident statement of the opening melody, bringing far more sound from her cello than previously. As she progressed, however, she slid into almost every high note, indulging in an excess of portamento.

"Kol Nidrei" is quite an affecting piece, and the second theme is particularly gorgeous, leading one neighboring patron to hum along. On balance, Beiser played it well, especially toward the end, when she did finally manage to hold the audience spellbound with an elegiac solo. If only she had gathered those forces earlier in the show.

The show itself ended with a sparkling performance of Gershwin's "Catfish Row," the orchestral suite drawn from his opera "Porgy and Bess." As with the "Cuban Overture," the suite is notable for its orchestration, including a solitary banjo player who sits forlornly between the cellos and the conductor and is granted only one solo: "I got plenty o'nuttin."

The banjo player in this case, who happened to be left-handed, took it all in stride, leading one to wonder how many opportunities exist for orchestral banjo players. Meanwhile all around him, strings of various persuasions leaned heavily into their instruments, playing with all their might to keep up with Ferrandis's brisk pace.

Ferrandis has a real ability to keep the orchestral sections distinctive while never lagging on the beat. The playing throughout was exemplary, from the jarring syncopations of the "Fugue" movement to the lyricism of the famous "Summertime" solo, here ably performed by concertmaster Joe Edelberg. As is often the case, the best was saved for last: "Good mornin', sistuh," with its dazzling orchestration and whirling melodies. The day was almost over at the end, but inside the hall, the sun was just beginning to rise.