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Symphony
THE SHOW MUST GO ON
by Steve Osborn
Sunday, January 9, 2022
The Jan. 9 Santa Rosa Symphony concert was supposed to feature the world premiere of Gabriella Smith’s first symphony, but it ended up featuring another type of premiere: a concert that was conceived, rehearsed and performed in less than eight hours. Symphony staff learned on Sunday morning that so
Choral and Vocal
AN OLD FRIEND RETURNS TO WEILL IN STERLING ABS MESSIAH PERFORMANCE
by Pamela Hicks Gailey
Sunday, December 19, 2021
A tremendous accomplishment by the American Bach Soloists Dec. 19 was near perfect performance of Handel's Messiah in Weill Hall. Long an annual tradition at San Francisco's Grace Cathedral, the ABS took to the road and delivered a Christmas gift of epic proportions to an obviously thrilled and enth
Symphony
SHOSTAKOVICH FIFTH THUNDERS AT WEILL HALL CONCERT
by Terry McNeill
Sunday, December 5, 2021
In a new season marketed as “Classical Reunion,” the Santa Rosa Symphony made a palpable connection with its audience at the early December set of three standing ovation concerts in Weill Hall. The December 5 concert, with 1,000 attending, is reviewed here. Vaughan Williams’ popular Fantasia on a T
Chamber
THE LINCOLN RETURNS WITH CLARKE'S PUNGENT TRIO
by Terry McNeill
Thursday, November 18, 2021
There were many familiar faces Nov. 18 during Music at Oakmont’s initial concert of the season, but perhaps the most necessary were the three musicians of the Lincoln Piano Trio, the Chicago-based group that has performed often in Oakmont since 2006. A smaller than unusual audience in Berger Audito
Symphony
NOSTALGIC BARBER KNOXVILLE AT SO CO PHIL JACKSON THEATER CONCERT
by Terry McNeill
Sunday, November 14, 2021
In their first Jackson Theater appearance of the new season the Sonoma County Philharmonic presented Nov. 14 a program devoid of novelty, but showcasing the “People’s Orchestra” in splendid performance condition after a long COVID-related layoff. Conductor Norman Gamboa drew a committed and boister
Chamber
THRILLING PIANO QUINTETS IN MILL VALLEY CHAMBER CONCERT
by Abby Wasserman
Sunday, November 14, 2021
The Mill Valley Chamber Music Society sprang back to life on November 14 when a stellar ensemble from the Manhattan Chamber Players, a New York-based collective, arrived to perform two piano quintets: Vaughn-Williams’ in C Minor (1903), little known and rarely performed; and Schubert’s in A Major D.
Chamber
MUSCULAR BRAHMS FROM IVES COLLECTIVE IN GLASER
by Terry McNeill
Sunday, November 14, 2021
Leaving SRJC’s Newman Auditorium for the first time in decades, the College’s Chamber Concert Series presented a season-opening concert Nov. 14 in Santa Rosa’s Glaser Center with the four-musician Bay-Area based Ives Collective. The season, the first given since 2020, is dedicated to Series Founder
Symphony
MONUMENTAL BRAHMS SYMPHONY HIGHLIGHTS MARIN SYMPHONY RETURN
by Terry McNeill
Sunday, November 7, 2021
In the waning COVID pandemic the Marin Symphony is one of the last Bay Area orchestras to return to the stage, and they did with considerable fanfare Nov. 7 before 1,200 in Civic Center Auditorium, with resident conductor Alasdair Neale leading a demanding concert of Brahms, Schumann and New York-ba
Symphony
APOLLO'S FIRE LIGHTS UP VIVALDI'S FOUR SEASONS IN WEILL
by Terry McNeill
Saturday, October 30, 2021
Long ago the Canadian violin virtuoso Gil Shaham played a program in Weill Hall of solo Bach, with a visual backdrop of slowly developing visuals, such as a pokey flower opening over four minutes. The Bach was sensational, and some in the audience liked the photos but many found them disconcerting,
Chamber
SPARKLING WIND, STRING, HARP MUSIC AT DEVON HOUSE GARDEN CONCERT
by Abby Wasserman
Saturday, October 9, 2021
Take a mild autumn evening, a garden gazebo with patterned rugs and lit with soft bulbs, shake in a fine chamber ensemble, add a rising new moon, and you have a recipe for the musical delight that violist Elizabeth Prior presented Oct. 9 in her Devon House Garden Concert series. The Marin Terra Li
SYMPHONY REVIEW
Santa Rosa Symphony / Sunday, November 5, 2017
Mei-Ann Chen, conductor. Nareh Arghamanyan, piano

Composer Jennifer Higdon

MEI-ANN CHEN PROVES A WORTHY CONTENDER FOR SANTA ROSA SYMPHONY CONDUCTING POST

by Steve Osborn
Sunday, November 5, 2017

These days the focus of Santa Rosa Symphony concerts is as much on the conductor candidates as on the soloists. This past weekend’s concerts featured the second of those candidates, Mei-Ann Chen, along with pianist Nareh Arghamanyan, each of whom cut an imposing figure on the stage.

Chen is diminutive but powerful, with an exacting style of conducting that commands attention. Arghamanyan likewise commands attention with truly elegant playing punctuated by dramatic flings of her long brown hair.

These two wonderful musicians collaborated on Tchaikovsky’s well-worn yet always surprising first piano concerto--but not until Chen had warmed up the orchestra with a frenetic dash through Shostakovich’s “Festival Overture.” From the heraldic opening in the brass to the triumphant final notes, the emphasis was on speed and exactitude. Chen set a quick and easy-to-follow beat that encouraged meticulous playing and tight ensemble. Her gestures were confident, and she used the entire podium to her advantage, jumping up and down excitedly in the rollicking final bars. The applause was vigorous.

Having established her street cred, Chen moved to the background for the Tchaikovsky. She kept the orchestral volume firmly under control and allowed Arghamanyan plenty of space to revel in Tchaikovsky’s echt Romanticism. The pianist’s opening chords were authoritative, and she projected easily all the way to the back of the hall. She displayed solid control of dynamics throughout the concerto, from thunderous fortissimos to delicate pianissimos that inspired rapt silence from the audience. Even more, she displayed an endless variety of keyboard attacks and releases. At times her fingers were jackhammers, at others the lightest of brushes, displaying so little movement that her hands seemed to glide above the keyboard.

All was not perfect, however. At times Arghamanyan was too heavy on the pedal, and the upper notes of her chosen piano, a Fazioli, sounded muted compared to the ringing tones of the orchestra’s usual instrument, a Steinway. She also flagged a bit toward the end of the first movement, but she sprang right back into action in the Andantino second, where she gave as much attention to the simplest of melodies as to the most dazzling runs. The finale, an Allegro con fuoco, was almost flawless.

Summoned back to the stage after sustained applause, Arghamanyan played more Tchaikovsky as an encore: the “October” movement from The Seasons. The simplicity of the piece belies its emotional intensity, which Arghamanyan kept ratcheting upward the softer she got. There was dead silence from the audience as the piece faded into nothingness.

After intermission, Chen displayed yet more street cred by conducting a contemporary work, Jennifer Higdon’s blue cathedral. Higdon’s work is quite approachable for audiences leery of the new, and the architecture of her works, in this instance ecclesiastical, is readily apparent.

In her program notes, Higdon writes that “I was pondering a lot of things about the journey we make after death … I was imagining a traveler on a journey through a glass cathedral in the sky.” This journey is made manifest in the music through a series of two-note phrases in the strings (left foot, right foot?) punctuated by outbursts from the percussion and winds. The step-wise motion proceeds inexorably until it bursts into a densely orchestrated volley from the brass, with bells tolling in the background. Tinkling and ringing instruments of many varieties gradually take over, leading to an ethereal sound world at the end.

Chen conducted all of this with great authority and an unerring beat, vividly recreating the journey down the cathedral aisle to a heavenly altar that is fundamentally different from the rest of the space. The performance was good, but the rigid program of the piece left one yearning for something unexpected.

After blue cathedral, the side lights on the stage changed from blue to red, and the stage hands removed Chen’s music stand, letting everyone know that she would be conducting the final work, Mendelssohn’s “Italian” symphony, from memory. The absence of an intervening stand gave Chen more direct access to the orchestra, and she took full advantage, often leaning so far into the various string sections that she could have touched the front stands with her baton.

The pace from the outset was brisk, leading one nearby patron to begin tapping his toes. Somehow Chen managed to keep a steady beat while devoting most of her attention to musical expression. She used a wide variety of gestures--sweeping her arms, crouching down, bending her wrists, jumping in the air--to usher forth the pungent sforzandos, hushed diminuendos and rapid accelerandos that make for great orchestral playing. She was a pleasure to watch, and apparently to play for, because everyone in the orchestra gave her full attention.

As the Mendelssohn motored forward, Chen often gave only the downbeats or no beats at all in favor of expressive gestures. She brought a sense of urgency to the opening Allegro vivace, equanimity to the subsequent Andante con moto, and sweetness to the Con moto moderato. Her best conducting came in the final movement, a Presto followed by a spirited Saltarello (a fast-paced Italian dance). This finale is an intricate mechanism that Chen kept ticking perfectly, even though the beat sometimes seemed to be measured in microseconds. From the furious sixteenth-note opening in the strings to the crashing finale, she never let up, not even once.

There are three conductor candidates yet to come for the Symphony, but Chen displayed almost everything one could want from a conductor: musicality, confidence, wonderful technique and restless enthusiasm. She will be tough to beat.

[Reprinted with permission from San Francisco Classical Voice.]