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SYMPHONY REVIEW
Santa Rosa Symphony / Saturday, December 13, 2008
Bruno Ferrandis, conductor; Kymry Esainko, piano soloist. SRS Honor Choir with vocal soloists Jenni Samuelson, Bonnie Brooks, Scott Whitaker, Hugh Davies

Santa Rosa Symphony pianist Kymry Esainko

A THREE-COURSE FEAST FROM SR SYMPHONY

by David Parsons
Saturday, December 13, 2008

Maestro Bruno Ferrandis, the Santa Rosa Symphony, the symphony’s Honor Choir and four vocal soloists served a hugely rewarding feast of hearty fare for our holiday delight this past weekend. Haydn’s Symphony No. 94, nicknamed “Surprise,” opened the varied program, and its elegant structure and imaginative orchestration set the tone for the whole evening.

At Saturday night’s performance, after a couple ragged entrances, the strings found their bearings in the lyrical introduction to the quick and dance-like first movement, holding off on their heavier vibrato much of the time. For the theme and variations which make up the second, “surprise” movement, the anticipation and the audience giggles which accompanied the famous sudden fortissimo chord gave way to delight with the increasingly complex variations. The third movement minuet is so quick that it feels like a rollicking folk dance, really a Ländler. Yet another “contredanse” flavor infects the energetic last movement, with the country-like mood interrupted only briefly by stormier harmonies toward the return of the main rondo theme and at the beginning of the coda. Altogether, the Haydn symphony was a perfect and ingratiating opening to the evening’s feast.

For our next course, the orchestra was joined by its principal pianist, Kymry Esainko, in Bach’s Concerto No. 1 in D minor. I wondered, when looking at the concert grand piano being rolled on the stage, how the downsized string orchestra would manage to balance with it, but from where we sat, the balance turned out to be excellent. There are those who might opt for a harpsichord to play a Bach concerto, but then the string ensemble would have to be even smaller, and thus there would be greater audibility challenges for listeners in a large hall.

Esainko and Ferrandis carefully adjusted balance to keep the piano’s lines clear when they were in lower registers. In typical Bachian fashion, the vigorous opening and closing movements evolve an immensely complex musical structure out of the tiniest motivic kernels. The haunting keyboard “aria” which forms the second movement cries out for a “sustaining” melody instrument like the violin or organ. Still, Esainko made the piano sing with a judicious use of the sustaining pedal and a sensitive feel for the elaborate ornamentation on the contours of each phrase.

The feast continued after intermission with Haydn’s “Lord Nelson Mass,” considered by his chief biographer to be “arguably Haydn’s greatest single composition.” Because of a shortage of musicians at the Esterházy court at that time, it was scored for just strings, trumpets and timpani. Haydn accepted later editors’ additions of what they perceived to be missing woodwind parts, and it was this expanded scoring that the symphony played.

In 1798 Haydn was at the height of his fame as Europe’s greatest composer, and he had an annual obligation to write a festive mass for the wife of Hungary’s Prince Esterházy. But Europe was not in a jovial state of mind, with Napoleon winning multiple battles in Austria, and even threatening Vienna itself. Haydn therefore named this a “Mass in Time of Distress.” Leading up to the September celebration when the mass was first heard, Napoleon’s possible invasion had been at least temporarily overturned by Admiral Horatio Nelson’s defeat of the French fleet in the Battle of the Nile. Nelson visited the Esterházys two years later, and may have heard the mass performed again at that time. According to legend, Nelson asked Haydn for the pen with which he had composed the mass, in exchange for a golden watch. Thus the nickname “Lord Nelson Mass.”

The mood of foreboding that hung over Europe shadowed even Haydn’s usually sunny outlook in this, his only mass in a minor key. The trumpets have key roles in almost all the movements, sounding their alarms. The Kyrie is the keynote of this tone of fear in the face of disaster. The Gloria is a relief from these terrors, and its tone of exultant praise reflects Haydn’s simple and clear faith in the God who is above the dangers of the world. Even in the Gloria, however, after its optimistic opening, the music shifts to a cautious E minor at the words “et in terra pax—and on earth peace.” Likewise, the bass solo beautifully sung by Hugh Davies at “qui tollis peccata mundi—that takest away the sins of the world” begins with B-flat major, but does not take long to shift to G minor and D minor at the words “miserere nobis—have mercy on us.”

In the canon that begins the Credo, the altos and basses repeat exactly the music sung by the sopranos and tenors. It is a Bachian sort of device, an ingenious way of providing reinforcement for the statement of belief. The most dramatic and ravishing part of the Credo is the lovely soprano solo “et incarnatus est—and he was made incarnate,” to demonstrate the idea that God took on human form and lived on earth—the center of the Christmas story. Here, soprano Jenni Samuelson’s singing provided an especially poignant moment.

In other masses, the Benedictus is often relatively inconsequential, but in this mass it becomes a grand procession for the heavenly messenger “who comes in the Name of the Lord.” We are back in D minor, and the trumpets again sound their ominous warning, reminiscent of the Kyrie, but finally the specter of war vanishes with the jubilation of D major, in “Osanna in excelsis.”

Soloists Jenni Samuelson, Bonnie Brooks, Scott Whitaker and Hugh Davies had an extended chance to shine in the Agnus Dei, an intimate and personal prayer for mercy. At the soloists’ last notes, the choir’s demeanor brightened, and then, with but one quick beat to take their breath, the altos launched the choir into the vivacious “Dona nobis pacem—grant us peace.” The depths of despair in the Kyrie lead to the confidence of peace at the end of the mass. We may be in times of distress, but there is always hope for the future.

Phebe Craig played the organ continuo for the mass, though she was not noticed in the program. Regrettably, from our seats her small chamber organ was inaudible except for one or two moments when accompanying solos. Perhaps a bigger instrument would better suit the need in such a large hall.

I find it hard to argue with those who feel that the “Lord Nelson Mass” is Haydn’s finest work. Ferrandis, the symphony, the Honor Choir and the soloists are to be saluted for this worthy conclusion to a splendid holiday feast.