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ECLECTIC PIANISM IN SPRING LAKE VILLAGE VIRTUAL RECITAL
by Terry McNeill
Wednesday, May 5, 2021
During the pandemic The Santa Rosa Symphony’s virtual concerts received their due in performance praise, but another series, Spring Lake Village, more quietly presented monthly virtual concerts to a select local audience. May 5 saw the latest event, produced by impresario Robert Hayden, and feature...
Symphony
SONIC CONTRASTS HIGHLIGHT SANTA ROSA SYMPHONY SPRING PROGRAM
by Terry McNeill
Sunday, April 25, 2021
In a curious mixture of compositions, the Santa Rosa Symphony’s penultimate virtual concert of the season April 25 unfolded in ways both highly satisfying and a bit perplexing. Directed by resident Music Director Francesco Lecce-Chong, the event followed a familiar format – several contemporary wor...
Symphony
ZUILL PLAYS ZWILICH WITH SANTA ROSA SYMPHONY
by Steve Osborn
Sunday, March 28, 2021
The Santa Rosa Symphony took a cautious step toward the return of live music in their March 28 virtual concert by sharing the stage with an actual live soloist rather than an apparition. Star cellist Zuill Bailey was still masked, and his back was toward the equally masked and plexiglassed orchestra...
Chamber
ECLECTIC CELLO PIANO VIRTUAL RECITAL FROM TOMKINS ZIVIAN DUO
by Terry McNeill
Sunday, March 28, 2021
The venerable 41-year Redwood Arts Council Series in Occidental has joined the virtual recital world with low budget but artistically satisfying programs, mostly using videos filmed in the performer’s residences. March 28 saw the Tanya Tomkins-Eric Zivian duo present an eclectic program from their ...
Symphony
SANTA ROSA SYMPHONY HITS THE SWEET SPOT
by Steve Osborn
Sunday, February 28, 2021
Small orchestras can inhabit a sweet spot between chamber ensembles and full orchestras, but how well they hit that spot depends on the composer's orchestration and the players' ability to project. That dependence was on full display in the Santa Rosa Symphony's Feb. 28 concert, which featured three...
Chamber
NOVEL OBOE-HARPSICHORD RECITAL FROM AIKEN DUO IN UKIAH
by Terry McNeill
Sunday, February 21, 2021
Oboe and harpsichord recitals are a rare North Bay event, even in a pandemic environment where a formal hall setting isn’t available. So it was a delight Feb. 21 to experience on the Ukiah Symphony’s website a recital by Symphony oboist Beth Aiken and harpsichordist husband Tom. The Aiken home vis...
Symphony
A HEALTHY MIX OF TRANSCRIPTIONS AND ORIGINALS FROM THE SR SYMPHONY
by Steve Osborn
Sunday, January 24, 2021
Transcriptions and ascending arpeggios were the order of the day on Jan. 24, as the Santa Rosa Symphony performed uplifting works by Bach/Webern, Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, Marianna Martínes and Mozart. The concert video was made in Weill Hall on Jan. 9. The first transcription was Webern’s 1935 renderi...
Symphony
HEROIC EFFORT FROM THE SANTA ROSA SYMPHONY
by Steve Osborn
Sunday, December 13, 2020
December 13 was a rainy day, perfect for huddling indoors and watching a prerecorded “live” performance by the Santa Rosa Symphony. The program was expansive, with music from the 18th through 21st centuries, and the mood was festive, in keeping with the holiday season. There was something in the fea...
Symphony
MASKED SANTA ROSA SYMPHONY CARRIES ON BRILLIANTLY
by Steve Osborn
Sunday, November 15, 2020
In some ways the Santa Rosa Symphony’s Nov. 15 concert on YouTube resembled a Conceptual Art performance from the 1970s. On display were about 30 masked orchestral musicians playing six feet apart from each other on stage, some of them separated by plexiglass barriers. In the 1970s, the concept behi...
Chamber
SPLENDID STRINGS IN A SUNLIT GARDEN
by Abby Wasserman
Sunday, November 1, 2020
A sun-drenched autumn afternoon, a Marin County garden and six superb string players from the Santa Rosa Symphony were manna from heaven to a pandemic-weary audience starved for live music. The sextet of Santa Rosa Symphony musicians performed to a small group of 20 Nov. 1, the day after Halloween....
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.]