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Choral and Vocal
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SYMPHONY REVIEW

Conductor Bruno Ferrandis

FERRANDIS BIDS ADIEU WITH MAHLERíS FINAL SYMPHONY

by Steve Osborn
Sunday, May 6, 2018

Sonoma State students in graduation robes posed for pictures and hugged each other at the universityís stone gates on Sunday afternoon, mirroring the prolonged farewells within the universityís Green Music Center, where Bruno Ferrandis bid adieu to the Santa Rosa Symphony after a dozen years at the helm with an unforgettable performance of Mahlerís Ninth Symphony. Some audience members took photographs to commemorate the event, but the most vivid remembrance is of the beautiful sonorities and hushed expectancy of the symphonyís closing moments.

At 80 minutes, more or less, the Mahler could have constituted the entire program, but a wine-sipping intermission was obligatory, so Ferrandis and company opened with ďTemporis,Ē a 2015 concerto for cimbalom by the Czech composer Michal Rataj, with cimbalom soloist Jan Miku[ˇs]ek.

The concert cimbalom is a trapezoidal Eastern European instrument that resembles a horizontal harp, with strings that are struck by mallets, plucked with fingers or otherwise set to vibrating. The sound that emerges is reminiscent of plucked piano strings, with considerable resonance but not much volume.

Ratajís score harnessed these resonances to the orchestra by setting most orchestral dynamics at pianissimo and alternating orchestral bursts with cimbalom solos. The resulting sound was often ethereal, tenuous and ghostly. At times, the cimbalom sounded like bells, but more often like a cloud of notes gently settling over the stage.

While the acoustics were striking, the underlying musical form was evasive. Forward motion and thematic development were hard to detect under the obscuring sonic mist. The conclusion was memorable, however. First Mikusek sang a wordless phrase, and then he seemed to make every string on the cimbalom resonate at once, erecting a veritable wall of sound that slowly dissipated. He followed with an encore of more traditional cimbalom repertoire, singing the Czech folk song ďUp on the HillĒ while accompanying himself on his instrument. The blend was irresistible.

Cimbaloms were popular in Mahlerís day, but he didnít include any in the massive 90-person orchestra required to play his final symphony. Virtually every section of the ensemble increased in size, nowhere more so than in the woodwinds, whose numbers doubled. Pianissimo markings were abundant, but so were thundering crescendos, triple fortes and, more than anything else, the composerís premonitions of his impending death.

The Ninth opens minimally in the cellos and horns, but it soon evolves into a full-throated roar marked by a descending two-note motive. Ferrandis was by turns restrained, animated and energetic as he guided the players through the opening movementís many twists and turns. A feeling of expectancy suffused the playing, even as harmonic resolution kept receding in the distance.

The challenge of the first movement is to keep the story moving forward and not let it get buried by the incessant barrage of notes. Here Ferrandis and the players succeeded admirably. They played each of the many climaxes at full force, but they never let up in the ensuing moments of quietude. One could hear the sounds of doom in the woodwinds and brass as the orchestra finally wound down with a series of exquisite solos from the principal horn, violin, oboe and harp.

In the second movement, the mood changed abruptly to a country dance in three-quarter time. The playing was jaunty and the oft-repeated trills impressive, but the tempo often dragged. In contrast, the third movement was a whirling dervish, with frenzied playing all around. The movement opens with a simple three-note motive that is handed from section to section, like a fugue. The complexity and tension mounted until a beautiful solo from the principal trumpet slowed everyone down. Ferrandis guided the orchestra expertly through the sudden change and kept pushing through the inexorable build-up to the presto closing.

Such an invigorating ending might satisfy a lesser composer, but Mahler sets all the preceding movements aside to embark on his last, one of the most gorgeous in the repertoire. The violins opened with a magisterial melody, followed by a superb horn solo as the violins hovered above, in nearly perfect intonation. A sense of finality crept in as all the strings joined in the lament. The moment was so spine-tingling that the elderly couple next to me suddenly grasped each otherís hands.

After the strings relented, the woodwinds took over, slowly building upward with a series of commendable solos. The entire orchestra joined in for a triple-forte climax, immediately followed by a triple piano. A hush descended on the audience as the symphony gradually faded away, marked by an elegiac solo from the principal cellist and a last word from the violas. Ferrandis extended the silence for a long moment, gathering his composure before bidding farewell to the cheering crowd.