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SYMPHONY REVIEW

Conductor, Soloists and the VSO March 31 in the Empress Theater

AUTUMNAL SIBELIUS 7TH HIGHLIGHTS VSO'S SEASON CLOSING CONCERT

by Terry McNeill
Sunday, March 31, 2019

Closing their 87th Season March 30 and 31 the Vallejo Symphony has moved from a single weekend concert to a set of two, and the late March response was two full houses in the charming downtown Vallejo Empress Theater.

Conductor Marc Taddei opened the Sunday program with a rousing performance of Beethoven’s Leonore Overture No. 3, Op. 72, and he drew from the orchestra many small but effective climaxes in the 16 minute work, with sterling flute and piccolo playing by Melanie Keller, and Kale Cummings’ resonant trumpet solo that seemed to come from the audience. The Hall has clear acoustics but a short reverberation time, presumably helped when each of the 432 seats is filled.

Fauré’s Op. 48 Requiem was probably the piece on the program that was the afternoon’s attraction, and Mr. Taddei introduced it from the stage with comments about the current and coming VSO seasons. He is a witty speaker. Soloists were baritone Brad Walker and soprano Shawnette Sulker, the latter frequently heard with the American Bach Soloists and at the Mendocino Music Festival. American Canyon High School’s Chamber Choir occupied the rear of the small stage, with 35 singers.

It was an earnest performance of the seven sections, but ultimately an underpowered one. The Choir, prepared by Jamie Butler, could not effectively cut through the orchestral fabric for a clear sound, despite Mr. Taddei’s deft sonic control of the Orchestra. Mr. Walker’s resonant voice in the offertoire gave underpinning, along with the small organ, to the sound where often there were no high strings employed, and he held the section’s final note with vigor.

The composer is anecdotally known as “old arpeggio,” and the sanctus produced those chordal figurations, and harpist Anna Maria Mendieta could be clearly heard, along with a lovely long trill from the first violins ending a meandering theme. Ms. Sulker sang mostly as a duo with the organ (sans violins) in the pie jesu, leading to a long descending orchestral line with indistinct choral projection in the agnus dei.

Mr. Taddei never let the pace slack in the libera me and the finale in paradisum where at key points the cellos, bass and viola sound covered the Choir. A long fermata ended the wonderful Fauré work and Mr. Butler joined the soloists on stage for loud applause.

A “call or summons” from timpani leading to rising strings began the Sibelius 7th Symphony, closing the concert’s first half and for me the event’s highlight. Harmonies in this 1924 work, the composer’s last symphony, faintly echo Wagner’s Tristan and surprisingly Howard Shore’s music to the films “The Lord of the Rings.” With Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich, Sibelius is the master of big climaxes, but in the Op 105 work the climaxes are few and not so big, and were well shaped by the conductor. The pace taken in the one-movement work, lasting 21 minutes, was generally slow and unfolded naturally.

There was a burnished feeling to Mr. Taddei’s interpretation, with lots of tympani (John Weeks) and building horn solos from Margarite Waddell’s section and unison string playing. There were faint references to the composer’s famous “Valse Triste” toward the end, in an autumnal character leading to a strange C Major key, and Mr. Taddei uniquely quickly cut off the soft ascending phrase that concludes the work. Some conductors like to have the sound linger but Mr. Taddei had perfectly logical ideas in shaping the final pianissimo mildly dissonant and restrained ending. I found his reading convincing and always beautiful.

Of course the hero of the day was Mr. Taddei, whose name appeared on the Virginia Street theater marquee alongside big VSO lettering, and who mixed with the audience and musicians in the spacious lounge after the performance, responding to arcane musical questions and his previous life in New Zealand.

The 2019-2020 season, announced during the concert and featuring the final three symphonies of Dvorák and those of Barber (No. 1), Roy Harris and Ives (both No. 3), will continue the format of two-set performances. Success breeds success.