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SYMPHONY REVIEW
Vallejo Symphony / Sunday, January 25, 2015
David Ramadanoff, conductor. Corey Fischer, narrator; Eric Tran and Nathan Cheung, piano

Martin, Ramadanoff, Chueng, Tran Jan. 25 (E. Warnimont photo)

ZOOLOGICAL THEME RESOUNDS IN SPLENDID VSO HOGAN CONCERT

by Elizabeth Warnimont
Sunday, January 25, 2015

A pair of virtuosic young pianists wowed the crowd Jan. 25 at the Vallejo Symphony Orchestra concert in Vallejo’s Hogan Auditorium, and part of the proceeds from the mostly animal-themed music benefited the Humane Society of the North Bay.

Symphony conductor David Ramadanoff warmed up the afternoon audience with interesting and amusing descriptions of the classic works for piano and orchestra, beginning with Respighi's “La Primavera,” which the composer based on the famous painting of the same name by Botticelli. Mr. Ramadanoff noted that “Respighi captures for me the feeling of the very beginning of spring. The sights and smells invite you to step out and enjoy. You'll hear the wind blowing through the trees, then a horn calls us to come out and play.”

The Orchestra’s violin section was precise in this concert, opening the Respighi brilliantly with a beautiful depiction of gentle wind rustling leaves as it passes through trees freshly awoken from their winter sleep. A quiet flute sound rounded out the effect, a feeling that was at once soothing and exciting. Equally evocative at the performance was the sound of the bassoon, which seemed to be representative of a dancer celebrating the season. The work then transitions into a set of varying dance movements, and the tempo begins to change repeatedly until culminating with a full and assertive “ta-da!” finale, which boomed dramatically through the hall.

“Primavera” also provided a glimpse of the agility and sensitivity of pianists Nathan Cheung and Eric Tran, popularly known as the “Happy Dog Duo.” In remarks to the audience Mr. Tran explained “We were on a plane, on our way home from a competition, and started a shared composition game to pass the time. We decided the result sounded like a happy dog.” Tucked away to the rear of the ensemble, the two pianos’ sound carried beautifully, providing a fine complement to Respighi's extraordinary salute to the magic of springtime.

Following was Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf, a playful annotation of the fairytale in which young Peter ignores his grandfather's cautioning and wanders into the meadow where wolves are known to prowl. “When I first heard 'Peter' (as a child), I was caught by how Prokofiev wrote for the instruments that described the animals so well. I was captivated,” Mr. Ramadanoff recalled in his “Know the Score” talk before the performance. The conductor treated the audience to a part-by-part demonstration of the various sound effects in the story. “The part of the bird will be played by the flutes, like this,” he began, as a flute played a segment of birdsong sound. “And here's the duck, played by the oboe,” and so forth. This elementary lesson brought the audience into the realm of childhood storytelling and frame of mind for appreciation of the piece, a rich celebration of the art of the story and the imagination of children.

Peter and the Wolf was conducted by Assistant Conductor Pamela Martin, and narrated by actor, director, playwright and musician Corey Fischer. Mr. Fischer is best known for his acting parts in early Robert Altman films and several 1970s television sitcoms including “M*A*S*H.” Ms. Martin's conducting style was exciting and fluid, and the narration melded with the music without any sense of abrupt interruption. Mr. Fischer’s voice is smooth and sculpted, and his range and tempo complemented the symphonic tale. “All is quiet,” chirped the bird, “All is quiet, all is quiet,” he read, followed by sweet sounds from the flute. “Then a duck came waddling round,” he told, as the oboe came in with lower-register quacking sounds. Some of the most carefree moments in the piece come as the duck and the bird are heard to argue, a clear tonal image with a delightful, playful pace, contrasted with the mildly ominous sound of the wolf later approaching the oblivious Peter. There was a palpable building sound of trembling cello and bass instruments.

For the work two concert grand pianos had been brought to the forefront of the Hogan stage, one nestled behind the other so the two pianists could face each other. It created the illusion of one ultra-long instrument with a keyboard at either end.

Rimsky-Korsakov's “Flight of the Bumblebee” began the second half, flawlessly executed by the two soloists. Their pristine performance left the audience breathless, and the performance was so swift and pure it seemed by the time a listener had a moment to contemplate the wonder of the music it was finished.

Completing the afternoon's concert was St. Saëns’ 12-movement The Carnival of the Animals, written in 1886. “St.-Saëns lived an incredibly long life,” Mr. Ramadanoff began in his introduction to the piece, and he was “…born eight years after Beethoven died and he lived into the 20th century to hear the music of Debussy and Stravinsky, which he detested.” He was a consummate composer as well as an avid scientist, and wrote The Carnival of the Animals simply to delight his friends and students.

For each of the twelve parts between the Introduction and Finale, Mr. Fischer again provided lively narrative. In “Turtles,” for example, he said the composer plays a little joke.. The movement begins with a familiar, fast-paced can-can theme, and then slows the melody down to a turtle's pace. Likewise, in “The Elephant,” a delicate dance theme develops into a heavy, plodding march. One especially entertaining part in Carnival is “Kangaroos,” where a musical conversation between the two solo pianos mimics the hopping of the comical marsupials.

The most delightful movement in “Carnival” is the eighth, “Aquarium,” which features rippling sounds from the pianos, rich and “swimming” violins, and the aural image of light sparkling on the water's surface provided by a glockenspiel. For those moments especially, the orchestra’ playing was ravishing.

Mr. Ramadanoff's final concert after more than 30 years at the helm of the VSO is April 12, and subsequently a new conductor and several Orchestra musicians will be named for the next season. This concert will be in Landers Hall, larger in seating than Hogan, and is located at 1310 Club Dr., Mare Island, Vallejo. The theme “Serenité” will include works by Bartok, Debussy, Ravel and TBA. Tickets are $15 to $35, and are available by calling (707) 643-4441 or at www.vallejosymphony.org.