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SYMPHONY REVIEW
Vallejo Symphony / Sunday, April 12, 2015
David Ramadanoff, conductor. Dan Levitan, harp

Conductor David Ramadanoff

WARM RAMADANOFF FAREWELL IN VSO'S MARE ISLAND CONCERT

by Elizabeth Warnimont
Sunday, April 12, 2015

Vallejo bid a fond farewell April 12 to a pillar of the arts community in a concert on Vallejo's Mare Island, as David Ramadanoff directed the Vallejo Symphony in his last concert as conductor. A polite but somber mood hung over Lander hall Sunday and was as pronounced as the notes produced by the musicians’ instruments.

Mr. Ramadanoff arrived onstage to enthusiastic applause, a repeat of the standing ovation he received at the onset of the symphony's last concert in January. The conductor graciously thanked the audience and in his trademark style, deflected their praise onto the musicians. He then proceeded to introduce the day's program, titled “Serenité.”

The program lineup surveyed a time of transition in Paris during the early part of the 20th century. Debussy and Ravel created music that now is called Impressionism, and the subsequent works of Poulenc, Honegger and Ibert represent a blossoming from that original style. In remarks to the audience the conductor explained that even Bartok’s music exemplifies the spirit of experimentation that prevailed in the period.

Bartok's “Romanian Dances opened the concert with the violins providing a unison beat in “Stick Dance,” a movement that danced upon by a delicate melody emanating from the winds. The second, “Sash Dance,” has a mysterious tone, as if the dancers would be performing on a stage, veiled and seductive. In all of the dances there was tremendous clarity, precision and feeling in the symphony's playing, yet alongside that perfection was also a sense of muting, in both overall volume and physical energy.

Next was Debussy’s “Danses sacrées et profanes,” featuring harpist Dan Levitan. This selection is another rather sedate, mysterious and seductive composition, but it also contains that special, magical quality that can only spring from the serene harp. An otherworldly magic shone through in Mr. Levitan's performance of both the accompanying and solo harp parts. The audience was treated to a show of musicianship when a loud bang was heard coming from the stage area and failed to cause disruption in music. The harp had popped a string. As Mr. Levitan replaced the string on stage after the conclusion of the piece, concertmaster Kathleen Comalli Dillon commented on the process.

The repair completed, the Orchestra continued with Ravel's “Introduction and Allegro,” a piece commissioned in 1904 by a harp manufacturer to demonstrate the special qualities of the new double-action pedal harp. The conductor explained to the audience that what we heard was a later orchestration of the piece, performed on a very different instrument. Originally composed as a septet, the work is often referred to as a mini-concerto, since the harp is so prominently featured. The harp was the belle of the ball, Mr. Levitan filling the hall with its magical allure, and beautifully accompanied by the Orchestra.

Opening the second half was Poulenc’s “Two Marches and an Interlude,” composed in 1937 to accompany a dinner in an exhibition hall. Mr. Ramadanoff explained that the first “course” is the most conservative, a simple march with little dissonance – the “sherbet and coffee,” he suggested. The second movement is more rustic, something that might have accompanied a provincial “cheese course,” and the third is the most modern of the three movements, in which dissonance takes center stage. In the program notes, VSO board member Mary Eichbauer explains that the first movement of the Poulenc work, “March 1889,” evokes a cheerful nostalgia for the Belle Époque period, whereas the concluding “March 1937” is much darker. Ultimately I found Karl Ekholm's bassoon playing in the third movement to be the most expressive element, evoking a powerful sense of intense contemplation.

Following the Poulenc was Honegger's 1920 “Spring Pastoral.” Once again, as in the opening Bartok dances, the music was intensely evocative, precisely played and with tremendous unity among the orchestral sections; yet it felt restrained in its overall ambience. The piece opens with a quiet melodic humming from the strings, followed by a moaning, low-level horn theme, performed by Meredith Brown. The lulling melody evokes an image of soaring over a pastoral scene. At one point, as the melody line was taken up by the clarinet and passed to the flute, a refreshing interlude of beauty suddenly interrupted the otherwise subdued tone of the day.

The concert concluded with Ibert's unusual and dissonant “Divertissement.” The musical score for an 1851 play, “An Italian Straw Hat”, inspired the piece. Here two lovers are compromised when a passing horse munches on the lady's hat that she has left resting on a neighboring bush. Appropriately, the music is surprising, uncomfortable and unpleasant.

From the start, the piece is rebellious in nature, defying conventions with its off-handed cacophony. Ms. Eichbauer sums it up in her description of the fourth “Valse” movement: “cleverly orchestrated, but always on the edge of annoying... a cymbal crash is funny for being over the top, and the trombone can't stop laughing.” The conductor had another way of describing the seemingly nonsensical work. “A little bit of tongue-sticking-out,” he suggested, referring to the jokester style that is prevalent in this as well as many of the composer's works. The conductor also noted the prankish sound of the piano toward the end of the piece, where he imagines Ibert “assaults the piano with his fists or elbows.” Even in its conclusion, the “Divertissement” seems to hold back from ever quite satisfying its mischievously sustained tension.

Before Mr. Ramadanoff left the stage at the end, several fans presenting him with a bouquet so elaborate that he felt compelled, with apologies to the givers, to dismantle the bouquet and share its blossoms with each of the musicians.

Dr. Thomas Snyder spoke of the conductor: “You came here in 1983 to lead a group of dedicated amateur musicians. They are now a group of dedicated, talented professionals. You have thrilled us and inspired us with your consummate musicianship.”

On Sept. 20 the Vallejo Symphony will open its 84th season with a concert at which the first of three conductor candidates will lead the orchestra in a program of his choosing. Thomas Heuser, music director of the Idaho Falls Symphony since 2011, will conduct the Sept. 20 concert.