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SYMPHONY REVIEW

Conductor Alasdair Neale

MIGHTY SHOSTAKOVICH 10TH OPENS MARIN SYMPHONY SEASON

by Terry McNeill
Sunday, October 28, 2018

Just two works were on the opening program of the Marin Symphony’s 67th season Oct. 28, Tchaikovsky’s iconic D Major Violin Concerto, and Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony.

Before a full house in the Marin Center Auditorium conductor Alasdair Neale set a judicious opening tempo in the brief orchestra introduction of the Tchaikovsky, setting the stage for the entry of few cadenza-like bars from soloist Dylana Jenson’s broadly lyrical main theme. There are many ways to interpret this 1878 work, usually a high-powered virtuosic showpiece with muscular virtuosity, but this afternoon Ms. Jenson chose a low-voltage approach. With the hall’s direct and non-reverberant sound, her playing had clarity and often elegance, but was frequently covered by the orchestra. A similar understated performance in the same hall and orchestra was in the 2016 Jennifer Koh Barber Concerto, but a big violin sound can be had here, as Vadim Gluzman proved many seasons ago.

Ms. Jenson played the cadenza (the composer’s own; are there others?) well with exemplary bow control in the top register and with small tailing off at phrase endings, limited swelling on individual notes and immaculate scales. Mr. Neale held the orchestra back at places, deferring to the soloist.

All through the performance Ms. Jenson was never in a hurry, preferring a chaste projection of themes in the allegro and andante movements, and melding flawlessly with solos from flutist Katrina Walker and clarinetist Arthur Austin. The violinist’s trills were not only fast but deftly shaped, and she commanded a spiccato technique that was admirable.

In the concluding allegro the workmanlike solo interpretation continued without many intriguing ideas or playing that didn’t emerge from the orchestral fabric with any commanding sonic projection. Oboist Margot Golding played beautiful responses to Ms. Walker, and Mr. Neale provided solid support to the rhythmic of the dance and at times the bass-heavy second theme.

The audience greeting the low-temperature reading with an extended standing ovation.

Following intermission Mr. Neale drew from his orchestra an extraordinarily lucid and powerful reading of the Shostakovich Symphony, a four-movement work from 1953. Conducting without score (pretty rare these days, and somewhat dangerous) Mr. Neale let this majestic and sporadically menacing piece unfold naturally, building sonically thrilling climaxes throughout, as the composer (with perhaps symphonists Tchaikovsky, Bruckner, Mahler and Sibelius) could uniquely construct. The darkly brooding moderato, lasting almost 30 minutes, was brilliantly played. Mr. Neale avoided milking the long and often loud phrases, clearly wanting the momentum to have a natural pace and sensibility. I suspect Mr. Neale knows well the composer’s rarely performed Fourth Symphony (1936), with its deep bass and cello underpinning, and at this concert he seated the low strings stage left for additional sonority.

Beautiful clarinet and horn playing characterized the first movement, and a piccolo duet (Ms. Walker and Sasha Launer) was captivating. The composer writes masterfully for this instrument.

The short scherzo had terrifying impact with relentless speed and raucous intensity, the trombones especially potent. Several violinists could not quite keep up with the breakneck velocity, and the ensemble was at times blurred. Horn playing in the third movement allegretto was almost impeccable, with principal Darby Hinshaw sounding richly above his orchestra colleagues, and lead to a laconic and characteristically melancholic Shostakovich thematic response from Ms. Walker sorrowful clarinet phrases.

Sterling wind playing continued into the finale (andante – allegro) where the conductor continued to fashion a glorious rubric of rich sound, keeping the many threads of this complicated music well in hand. Standout soloists here were Mr. Austin, Ms. Walker (projecting a theme which was a call to musical battle), the cello section and bassoonist Carla Wilson. The Marin Symphony’s four-horn section played the tricky four-note ascending and descending phrases in unison.

This performance was among the finest I have ever heard from the Marin Symphony, in a work that demanded astral virtuoso accomplishment from each section. However, the hero of the afternoon was Mr. Neale, whose conception and authority in Shostakovich’s music were marvelous to experience.

Bravos erupted at the end of the 59-minute odyssey, and the ovation was long and resounding.