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SYMPHONY REVIEW

Jonathan Dimmock (far left) and Alexander Kahn (far right) April 29 in Weill (JCM Photo)

ORGAN SYMPHONY IN SSU ORCHESTRA CONCERT IN WEILL

by Terry McNeill
Sunday, April 29, 2018

Though Classical Sonoma seldom reviews student concerts, as ample North Coast concerts keep the staff of 11 reviewers busy. But the chance to hear the Sonoma State University Orchestra tackle St. SaŽnsí majestic Organ Symphony April 29 was a rare opportunity and not easily to be missed.

Avec líorgue (with organ) was the concertís title, and since Weill Hall has no resident organ, an explanation is necessary. There was once a plan to have the Schroeder Hall organís sound connected to Weillís speakers hanging from the ceiling, and the Schroeder organist watching the Weill conductor through closed circuit TV. That idea was abandoned, and now an electronic instrument is brought to the stage, in this event a first-cabin three manual unit. San Francisco organist Jonathan Dimmock played it splendidly throughout the afternoon.

SSU faculty artist Alexander Kahn conducted in a style sharply different from the past 20 or so conductors in Weill, choosing conservative and elegant cues and gestures rather and the extravagant control mechanics and dynamics Santa Rosa Symphony conductors such as Bruno Ferrandis and Francesco Lecce-Chong employ. One exception to the one/twenty ratio comes to mind, when Valery Gergievís conducted the Mariinsky Orchestra in Weill in a sensational Strauss Ein Heldenleben early this year in his unique ďfluffyĒ arm/hand style. The Mariinsky was one of a handful of superlative orchestra concerts since the hall opened in 2013.

The St. SaŽns C Minor unfolded with an initial lovely mystery, deftly drawn by Mr. Kahn, and the organ had ample sound and seemingly greater reverberation time than Weill usually produces. As the 54-person orchestra was composed of community and student players, the usual benchmarks of crisp ensemble, exact string pitch, unified brass attacks and theme projection in the violins needed critical adjustment. That said, there were some convincing performances throughout, especially duos with the violas and cellos, powerful brass outbursts, horn and cello responses and pungent percussion sounds and cymbal crashes. Flutist Alyssa Cunningham and clarinetist Ryan Perry played lovely solos, and Pedro Estrada led the three-person percussion section.

The great bottom C Major organ note opened the final section with majesty, and Mr. Kahn lost no time in bringing the allegro moderato to a rollicking conclusion. The piano part in the finale (two and four hands) was briefly audible, and Mr. Dimmockís chordal playing, heard only in two parts of the 1886 Symphony, sporadically overpowered the orchestra in a rich sonic mass. But itís that kind of piece, a champagne festival of glorious sound, and may have been a North Coast premiere.

The St. SaŽns was preceded in the first half by Dukasí Fanfare from the 1911 ballet La Pťri, and Poulencís G Minor Concerto for Organ, Strings and Timpani. With 11 players sited high in the balcony behind the stage (four horns, tuba, three trumpets and three trombones) the snappy Dukas work passed without much notice, and in a way so did the Poulenc. Most of the Concerto, finished in 1938, differs from the more familiar Poulenc of urbane French charm, light sarcasm and slightly melancholic tunes. The single-movement music had a movie score character for the first section, and then the Orchestra seemed to catch its stride in the following part of lighter textures and faster tempos. High string intonation in the tempo allegro, molto agitato was a challenge, but the five cellos and two double basses gave a sonorous foundation for the entire 24 minute performance.

The audience of 200 gave the Poulenc performance a short and subdued applause.