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SYMPHONY REVIEW
Marin Symphony / Tuesday, October 31, 2017
Alasdair Neale, conductor. Jennifer Koh, violin

Conductor Alasdair Neale

THUNDEROUS TCHAIKOVSKY FOURTH OPENS MARIN SYMPHONY SEASON

by Terry McNeill
Tuesday, October 31, 2017

North Coast weather is turning cool and the nights longer, ideal for Tchaikovsky’s big boned symphonies. The Santa Rosa Symphony recently programmed the Fourth (F Minor Symphony) as did the San Francisco Symphony. Norman Gamboa’s Sonoma County Philharmonic just played the Tchaikovsky First, forgoing a previously programmed another local Tchaikovsky Fourth.

So it was no surprise that the monumental 1878 Fourth was the capstone of the Marin Symphony’s back-to-back concerts Oct. 29 and 31, launching the 65th season and Alasdair Neale’s 21st as conductor. The Tuesday night concert, played before 800 in the Marin Center Auditorium, is reviewed here.

In the opening andante –moderato – allegro vivo horn and string entrances were often hit and miss, but footing was quickly found and Mr. Neale forged a commanding interpretation of brooding intensity. String playing was powerful, especially when the recapitulation arrived in the odd key (to F Minor) of D Minor. The following andantino’s folk song theme was fetchingly played by oboist Margot Golding, and the music reached an impassioned climax.

In the scherzo the word “genius” comes quickly to mind, with a joyous perpetual string pizzicato, with the Symphony’s excellent wind section (Ms. Golding, flutist Monica Daniel-Barker, clarinetist Arthur Austin) adding a piquant but perhaps unneeded respite to the plucked string magic. The movement’s tempo and piccolo playing of Katrina Walter were ideal.

Orchestra aficionados always gravitate to the tumultuous allegro con fuoco finale, and here the conductor didn’t disappoint. The danger is the seduction of a super fast tempo that can drive things off the rails as the excitement builds and the cymbals crash. Many cymbal crashes. Mr. Neale drew a propulsive performance from his orchestra, leaving nothing on the table, and the audience responded with a roaring standing ovation, and brought the conductor three times to center stage to acknowledge the applause.

Concluding the first half was a lush and lyrical but largely underpowered performance of Barber’s Op. 14 Violin Concerto, with Jennifer Koh as soloist. Ms. Koh captured the ruminating quality of the music from 1940, especially in the first two movements, but too often she could be seen playing but not heard, as least from my seat in mid orchestra. Barber’s violin writing weaves in and out of the orchestral fabric and was frequently covered by the upper strings, affecting the sonic balance. The soloist played well, with deft small slides between notes and an overarching nostalgic violin color, but details and even her elegant phrasing were occasionally submerged. Too much ensemble sound? Hall acoustics? Lack of Ms. Koh’s thematic projection? Clarinet, oboe and horn (Darby Hinshaw) playing married beautifully with the soloist in the andante and the unidentified pianist provided short harmonic touches, mostly in descending-note phrases.

Beginning the concert was the Rimsky-Korsakov adaptation of Mussorgsky’s Night on Bare Mountain. The hints of Tchaikovsky were always present in the brilliant orchestration and often-blaring effects. The Symphony’s stalwart trombones (Bruce Chrisp) and trumpets (John Freeman) were up to the demanding task here and all evening.