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SYMPHONY REVIEW

Conductor Norman Gamboa

INTOXICATING ORCHESTRAL SONORITIES

by Terry McNeill
Sunday, September 28, 2014

For the first Sunday afternoon concert of their 16th season, on Sept. 28, the Sonoma County Philharmonic presented an all-Russian program that spotlighted intoxicating orchestral sonorities and heroic conducting from Norman Gamboa. He opened with a stunning performance of Kabalevsky's snappy overture to the opera "Colas Breugnon." This five-minute romp is reminiscent of Shostakovich's "Festival Overture," written 16 years later.

Renowned Irish violinist Michael d'Arcy followed with a focused but small-scaled reading of the soaring Prokofiev Second Concerto, from 1936. The tempos throughout were judicious, and balances favored the low strings, making some of his high notes nearly inaudible. Mr. d'Arcy began the Andante second movement eloquently, his line emerging from silence into a mournful theme of majesty, juxtaposed with the bassoon playing of Miranda Kincaid and Steven Peterson, and Mary Kruzas' richly hued clarinet. It was cantilena of a high order.

The swirling marcato finale was effective but lacked frenzy and power.

Power and pathos were in evidence after intermission with Tchaikovsky's sixth and last symphony, the "Pathétique." Mr. Gamboa adopted a slow tempo at the beginning, emphasizing the extraordinary sound of a low bassoon solo rising through the murk of the basses. He was in no hurry to lessen the impact of the prismatic themes and the many climaxes. The viola section could often be heard over the violins, perhaps a feature of Santa Rosa High School Auditorium's bright acoustics.

Standouts in the slow waltzes of the Allegro con Grazia were clarinetist Nick Xenelis, flutists Emily Reynolds and Debra Scheuerman, and the trombone section. Mr. Gamboa built the sonorities carefully, at times holding back in tiny ritards to give this sometimes convoluted score control and shape.

As usual in public performances, the last chords of the scherzo-like third movement (punctuated by timpanist Walt Bodley and blaring trumpets) elicited loud applause, and the conductor stood stoically before beginning the lament of the unique finale. Tchaikovsky's fourth and fifth symphonies are "fate" works that end in triumph, but the conclusion of the sixth is the harbinger of defeat and disaster. Successive notes came in alternation in first and second violins, whose seating on opposite sides of the stage maximized the effect. Even the soft gong stroke could be distinctly heard. The repetition of a new melody in a major key become obsessive, another marker of sadness that was touchingly played.

The nearly full house greeted the performance with a loud ovation, certainly due to the ensemble's capable playing and Mr. Gamboa's adroit direction.