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SYMPHONY REVIEW
Santa Rosa Symphony / Saturday, May 3, 2014
Bruno Ferrandis, conductor. Jon Kimura Parker, piano

Pianist Jon Kimura Parker

OUT OF MANY, ONE

by Steve Osborn
Saturday, May 3, 2014

The title of the Santa Rosa Symphony's May 3 concert at Weill Hall was "Spring Rhapsody," and the music contained therein was indeed rhapsodic, ranging from the youthful exuberance of Debussy, to the sparkling wit of Rachmaninoff, to the pagan energy of Stravinsky. But the real rhapsody was the Symphony's ability, along with conductor Bruno Ferrandis and piano soloist Jon Kimura Parker, to bring each of those pieces to vibrant life. The playing was inspired from beginning to end, with no glitches to break the spell.

Piano soloist Parker was the embodiment of inspired playing. Preparing to perform Rachmaninoff's "Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini," he assumed a rock-solid posture on the piano bench, his feet firmly planted, his eyes glued to the keys, his hands poised for action. He rarely deviated from that pose throughout the performance, concentrating all his energy into his hands.

Those hands proved capable of almost anything, whether bouncing off the keys or exercising the utmost delicacy of touch. His attack was so prodigious that he never had trouble making himself heard. Every note was distinct, every phrase complete.

The Rhapsody consists of 24 variations on a familiar theme by Paganini. They range from classical variations on melodic elements to more distant versions that are only tangentially related to the theme. Parker accentuated the differences between the variations, making each one distinct while continuing to drive the piece forward. By the time he arrived at the famous 18th variation, he was in overdrive, building up the lush romantic theme from pianissimo to triple forte in a thrilling display of power.

Ferrandis and the Symphony matched Parker bar for bar, offering a perfect balance to his solo flights. When the Rhapsody was over, Parker flung his arms out to the sides and rushed up to the podium to embrace Ferrandis. The two had clearly connected, and the Symphony players responded warmly, along with the audience, which rose to its feet for a sustained ovation.

Earlier, the Symphony opened the concert with a strong reading of Debussy's "Printemps," a youthful work firmly rooted in Impressionism. The two-movement piece contains many of the composer's characteristic elements, including luscious melodies, atmospheric writing and graceful fluidity. Ferrandis brought all these out, at times resorting to agitated hand gestures to produce adequate vibrato from the strings.

The first movement featured a wonderful viola solo by Meg Titchener, and the second concluded with an unexpected sprightly dance theme, which emerged from the dense tapestry of sound like a ray of sunlight. It was a captivating ending to a rarely performed youthful gem.

The real gem of the evening, however, came after intermission: Stravinsky's "The Rite of Spring." This landmark piece, now 101 years old, fundamentally altered music, and it remains as thrilling as ever. Rarely has anyone employed the full orchestra to such telling effect. Each type of instrument, from the piccolo to the string bass, has its own distinct line, and the unending variety of their combinations fully engages the senses.

The first thing you notice about the Rite is the immensity of the orchestra. The woodwind, brass and percussion sections are doubled or tripled in size, so much so that they rival the number of string players. With this rebalancing, everyone gains equal importance, and the old notion of an orchestra being dominated by the first violins is thrown to the wind.

Ferrandis took a well-controlled approach to the Rite, stressing rhythmic exactitude above all else. The piece is notorious for its many syncopations and other rhythmic challenges, but Ferrandis was unfazed, beating the constantly changing time signatures with a steady hand and an unvarying internal metronome. His tempi were by turns brisk and restrained.

The playing throughout was exemplary, from Carla Wilson's haunting bassoon solo at the opening to the no-holds-barred full orchestra at the end. While the Rite is known for its boisterous passages and its propulsive rhythms, there are as many slow sections as fast ones. These calms between the storms featured some of the most expressive playing of the evening.

For sheer excitement, however, nothing could match the storms. The orchestra was particularly malleable when playing these, shifting in and out of them with dramatic flair. Perhaps the most vivid image of the evening was of one percussionist virtually hurling himself into the bass drum, which shook from the force of his blow.

The performance was an object lesson in what orchestras are all about: out of many, one. Each instrument had a distinct voice, and their interactions led to a unified whole. During the sustained ovation at the end, Ferrandis asked more than a dozen soloists and sections to stand before bidding the entire orchestra to rise.

Afterward, as the audience made its way out, one woman remarked to her companion, "How does somebody put all the notes together for something like that?" That's a difficult question to answer, but the results are nonetheless spectacular, as the Symphony made abundantly clear.