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Symphony
THE SHOW MUST GO ON
by Steve Osborn
Sunday, January 9, 2022
The Jan. 9 Santa Rosa Symphony concert was supposed to feature the world premiere of Gabriella Smith’s first symphony, but it ended up featuring another type of premiere: a concert that was conceived, rehearsed and performed in less than eight hours. Symphony staff learned on Sunday morning that so
Choral and Vocal
AN OLD FRIEND RETURNS TO WEILL IN STERLING ABS MESSIAH PERFORMANCE
by Pamela Hicks Gailey
Sunday, December 19, 2021
A tremendous accomplishment by the American Bach Soloists Dec. 19 was near perfect performance of Handel's Messiah in Weill Hall. Long an annual tradition at San Francisco's Grace Cathedral, the ABS took to the road and delivered a Christmas gift of epic proportions to an obviously thrilled and enth
Symphony
SHOSTAKOVICH FIFTH THUNDERS AT WEILL HALL CONCERT
by Terry McNeill
Sunday, December 5, 2021
In a new season marketed as “Classical Reunion,” the Santa Rosa Symphony made a palpable connection with its audience at the early December set of three standing ovation concerts in Weill Hall. The December 5 concert, with 1,000 attending, is reviewed here. Vaughan Williams’ popular Fantasia on a T
Chamber
THE LINCOLN RETURNS WITH CLARKE'S PUNGENT TRIO
by Terry McNeill
Thursday, November 18, 2021
There were many familiar faces Nov. 18 during Music at Oakmont’s initial concert of the season, but perhaps the most necessary were the three musicians of the Lincoln Piano Trio, the Chicago-based group that has performed often in Oakmont since 2006. A smaller than unusual audience in Berger Audito
Symphony
NOSTALGIC BARBER KNOXVILLE AT SO CO PHIL JACKSON THEATER CONCERT
by Terry McNeill
Sunday, November 14, 2021
In their first Jackson Theater appearance of the new season the Sonoma County Philharmonic presented Nov. 14 a program devoid of novelty, but showcasing the “People’s Orchestra” in splendid performance condition after a long COVID-related layoff. Conductor Norman Gamboa drew a committed and boister
Chamber
THRILLING PIANO QUINTETS IN MILL VALLEY CHAMBER CONCERT
by Abby Wasserman
Sunday, November 14, 2021
The Mill Valley Chamber Music Society sprang back to life on November 14 when a stellar ensemble from the Manhattan Chamber Players, a New York-based collective, arrived to perform two piano quintets: Vaughn-Williams’ in C Minor (1903), little known and rarely performed; and Schubert’s in A Major D.
Chamber
MUSCULAR BRAHMS FROM IVES COLLECTIVE IN GLASER
by Terry McNeill
Sunday, November 14, 2021
Leaving SRJC’s Newman Auditorium for the first time in decades, the College’s Chamber Concert Series presented a season-opening concert Nov. 14 in Santa Rosa’s Glaser Center with the four-musician Bay-Area based Ives Collective. The season, the first given since 2020, is dedicated to Series Founder
Symphony
MONUMENTAL BRAHMS SYMPHONY HIGHLIGHTS MARIN SYMPHONY RETURN
by Terry McNeill
Sunday, November 7, 2021
In the waning COVID pandemic the Marin Symphony is one of the last Bay Area orchestras to return to the stage, and they did with considerable fanfare Nov. 7 before 1,200 in Civic Center Auditorium, with resident conductor Alasdair Neale leading a demanding concert of Brahms, Schumann and New York-ba
Symphony
APOLLO'S FIRE LIGHTS UP VIVALDI'S FOUR SEASONS IN WEILL
by Terry McNeill
Saturday, October 30, 2021
Long ago the Canadian violin virtuoso Gil Shaham played a program in Weill Hall of solo Bach, with a visual backdrop of slowly developing visuals, such as a pokey flower opening over four minutes. The Bach was sensational, and some in the audience liked the photos but many found them disconcerting,
Chamber
SPARKLING WIND, STRING, HARP MUSIC AT DEVON HOUSE GARDEN CONCERT
by Abby Wasserman
Saturday, October 9, 2021
Take a mild autumn evening, a garden gazebo with patterned rugs and lit with soft bulbs, shake in a fine chamber ensemble, add a rising new moon, and you have a recipe for the musical delight that violist Elizabeth Prior presented Oct. 9 in her Devon House Garden Concert series. The Marin Terra Li
SYMPHONY REVIEW
San Francisco Symphony / Thursday, November 21, 2013
Semyon Bychkov, conductor. Till Fellner, piano

Conductor Semyon Bychkov

A DARK AND STORMY NIGHT

by Steve Osborn
Thursday, November 21, 2013

One way to get a free glass of wine is to buy a ticket to a San Francisco Symphony concert at the Green Music Center, wait for a dark and stormy night, then stroll into Weill Hall and behold a nearly empty stage, with only a solitary cellist tuning his instrument.

That's what happened on Thursday evening, Nov. 21, when the Symphony's buses were delayed on Highway 101 by a fallen tree and a massive traffic jam. Promptly at 8, a Symphony representative walked on stage and announced that the concert would be postponed until 8:30, at which point GMC Executive Director Larry Furukawa-Schlereth announced that everyone would get a free glass of wine. A mass exodus ensued.

The stormy night provided a fitting context for the eventual program, which did begin as promised. The first half offered the brooding Mozart Piano Concerto No. 24, one of his few concertos in a minor key (C minor), and perhaps his most introspective. Mozart's anguish then gave way in the second half to Richard Strauss's ebullient "An Alpine Symphony," a veritable avalanche of sound, complete with wind and thunder machines.

Austrian pianist Till Fellner played the role of Mozart, who premiered his C minor concerto in April 1786 to a presumably befuddled Viennese audience. Unlike almost all his other concertos, the C minor is neither happy, nor flashy, nor crowd-pleasing. It's also not so much a piano concerto as a sinfonia concertante for woodwinds, who are featured throughout the work.

Fellner is an exceedingly correct pianist. He sits ramrod-straight on the piano bench, with nary a wasted motion. When playing, his elbows are just slightly bent, but somehow his fingers act as spring-loaded triggers, striking the keys with the utmost precision and fortitude.

Gently urged forward by guest conductor Semyon Bychkov, a reduced band of Symphony players intoned the concerto's doleful introduction, which sounds like the beginning of a march to the scaffold. The tempo was luxuriant, the motion fluid, the texture polished. Upon entry, Fellner was a model of restraint, playing his line with the utmost precision and extolling the virtues of quietude. His only release came during the operatic cadenza, which he played to perfection.

The restraint continued into the second movement, where Fellner offered an almost staccato approach to the deceptively simple melody (one note, then two, then three ascending, then five descending) that recurs throughout the Rondo form. His touch was feather-light, his timing impeccable.

The tempo was again luxurious in the finale, a set of variations with occasional glimpses of a major key within an ultimately triumphant minor mode. Fellner's left hand was particularly strong in bringing out the grim rhythms and moods that dominate the work. At the end, the applause from the nearly full house was subdued, without the customary ovation--but then it's hard to imagine anyone jumping up and cheering after such a somber work.

The ovation came at the end of the program, after an impassioned reading of Richard Strauss's "Alpine Symphony," the last in his long series of tone poems. The term "symphony" is actually a misnomer in this case because the work is just one long movement with 22 separate episodes, with little of the thematic development that one encounters in a typical symphony. Instead, it's all about painting pictures with sound.

Strauss works on a massive canvas with an inordinate number of brushes and colors. His score calls for about 130 players on a stupefying array of instruments, including not only the aforementioned wind and thunder machines, but also a heckelphone (bass oboe), four Wagner horns, innumerable percussion instruments, an organ, two harps and an offstage brass ensemble.

Keeping this menagerie under control is more than a challenge, but Bychkov seemed utterly unperturbed. He kept his feet firmly planted on the podium, compelling the orchestra to do his bidding through graceful movements of his baton and occasional shakes of his curly hair. The low, slow beginning ("Night") seemed almost frozen, with the violins barely moving their bows. In time, this gave way to a massive crescendo ("Sunrise") that threatened to break the windows.

And so it went throughout the misnamed symphony. Each of the 22 episodes came into being, offered its specific sonic image ("At the Waterfall," "On Flowering Meadows," "On the Glacier"), then either faded out or butted heads with the next. Within the episodes, the sound was often shimmering, iridescent and luminous, the spectacular result of Strauss's finely crafted orchestration.

Inevitably, the climax came toward the end, with a thoroughly convincing "Thunderstorm and Tempest." Everyone on stage played at top volume, and the percussionist manning the wind machine nearly tore his arm out of its socket while winding the contraption around and around. This prodigious display of force gradually morphed into a truly magical section beginning with the organ invoking the blessed silence of a church, followed by magisterial and gradually waning tones from the rest of the mighty ensemble. At the end, Bychkov held his hands aloft for a long moment before summoning the thunderous applause.