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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

Conductor Francesco Lecce-Chonge

A SLICE OF HEAVEN FROM THE SANTA ROSA SYMPHONY

by Steve Osborn
Sunday, January 13, 2019

Under its vibrant new music director, Francesco Lecce-Chong, the Santa Rosa Symphony this past Sunday offered a nearly perfect afternoon of Mozart (Symphony No. 40) and Mahler (Symphony No. 4). While the two works share a common digit, the only element uniting them is genius. They made for a dazzling couple.

As if to herald these two masterworks, Lecce-Chong opened the program with two antiphonal brass fanfares by Toru Takemitsu: “Signals from Heaven 1 (day)” and “Signals from Heaven 2 (night).” For the daytime Signal, six brass players occupied stage right, while another half dozen defended stage left, with Lecce-Chong conducting in the middle and nobody else on stage. In the fashion of Gabrielli, the antiphon was slow-moving and filled with echo effects, building steadily to a triumphant chord. For the nighttime Signal, the players rearranged themselves and intoned a leisurely series of descending figures underneath a trumpet solo, again building to a sustained chord. The playing was excellent throughout.

As the rest of the orchestra filed in for the Mozart, the stage manager removed Lecce-Chong’s music stand. Lecce-Chong conducted the remainder of the concert from memory and, for the Mozart, without a baton.

The lack of a score or a baton allowed Lecce-Chong to engage closely with the orchestra, which responded in kind. They started the Allegro molto first movement at a brisk pace, with solid unisons from the various string sections. Their bows moved as one, and their intonation was superb. Lecce-Chong was a model of restraint, conducting with his head as much as his hands.

The second movement is marked Andante, but Lecce-Chong’s tempo was more like Allegretto, with sharply etched articulations and a playful spirit. Freed of the baton, Lecce-Chong used both arms almost equally, indicating long phrases rather than simply beating time. The Minuet third movement was likewise brisk, with an almost militaristic drive. The Trio section offered a brief respite, but the Minuet returned even more fierce and determined, with the players digging deeply into their strings.

The Allegro finale was a sprint to the finish, with more great unisons from the strings, even on the trickiest passages. Lecce-Chong propelled the orchestra forward with ever more dramatic movements, be it spreading his arms wide or punching the air in front of him like a boxer. For all that, the high points were the sudden rests, where the entire orchestra paused before launching back into the fray. The ending was electric.

Lecce-Chong took advantage of the interlude between the Takemitsu and the Mozart to explain the background for Mahler’s Fourth, which he described as “a child’s view of heaven.” The child in this case has passed away, so he or she is staring at the abundance of heaven, which is mostly blue sky with an occasional storm cloud.

Lecce-Chong’s remarks proved quite helpful for approaching the symphony, which offers a dizzying array of themes interspersed with bits of song and sharp-edged solos. Armed with a baton but still scoreless, Lecce-Chong used a light touch to smooth the many transitions in the opening movement. The relationships between the orchestral sections were so complex that the piece sounded like chamber music for, say, 18 voices: an octadecatet. Despite the complexity, each voice was distinctive, nowhere more so than in the wonderful French horn solo at the end, played beautifully by principal horn Meredith Brown.

Much of the focus in the Scherzo second movement was on concertmaster Joe Edelberg, who alternated his regular violin with another tuned a full step higher. He used the latter to lead a ghostly dance of death, in stark contrast to the otherwise sunny orchestration. His recurring pizzicatos were particularly chilling.

Lecce-Chong waited for full silence before unveiling the transcendent third movement, a quiescent Adagio that begins in the cellos and basses and gradually spreads upward through the orchestra. Despite the slow speed, the forward motion was ineluctable, bringing a hushed expectancy to the audience, which seemed to be hanging onto every note. Lecce-Chong never lost the thread as the theme and variations increased in urgency and emotion, ultimately exploding into triple-forte and then diminishing back to the opening dynamic. The impression was of floating in interstellar space.

As the Adagio faded out, the soprano Maria Plette entered from stage right to sing the Mahler song that inspired the entire symphony: “Das himmlische Leben” (The Heavenly Life). Unfortunately, the text of the song wasn’t printed in the program, nor was it projected on a screen, so the audience was left to its own devices to figure out what Plette was singing. I was able to track down the text later, but I regret not having it at the time because it adds significantly to the experience of the symphony. The key line is, “There is just no music on earth that can compare to ours.”

Setting the text problems aside, Plette sang adequately but not brilliantly. Her diction was good, and she projected well, but her vibrato was often too wide, and her voice could be sharp-edged. She did improve as she went along, however, and the orchestra continued to play brilliantly, making the final lines ring true: “The angelic voices gladden our senses, so that all awaken for joy.”

Reprinted with permission from San Francisco Classical Voice