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SYMPHONY REVIEW
Santa Rosa Symphony / Sunday, October 11, 2020
Francesco Lecce-Chong, conductor

Composer George Walker

THRILLING SANTA ROSA SYMPHONY PERFORMANCE IN AN EMPTY WEILL HALL

by Steve Osborn
Sunday, October 11, 2020

Viewers of the Santa Rosa Symphony’s inaugural socially distanced YouTube concert on Oct. 11 could be forgiven for thinking they had stumbled upon a performance of Verdi’s “Un Ballo in Maschera” (A Masked Ball), given that the string players in the opening shot all wore black masks. The sole exception was conductor Francesco Lecce-Chong, who sported a white-framed face shield.

The masks were a necessary coronavirus precaution for the strings, who were arranged in widely spaced chairs across the Weill Hall stage, with only one player per stand. The spacing reduced their numbers to nineteen: six first violins, four seconds, four violas, three cellos and two basses.

After the close-up introductions by Lecce-Chong and principal second violin Karen Shinozaki Sor, the camera tracked back to reveal the ensemble seated on stage with nobody in the audience, not even a cameraperson. Thus began the actual performance, which was recorded in real time on Oct. 5 before appearing “live” on YouTube six days later.

The concert began with a revelatory performance of George Walker’s 1946 “Lyric for Strings,” a worthy competitor to Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings,” both of which began life as slow movements in string quartets. The rarely played Walker proved to be a refreshing alternative to the overplayed Barber, while covering much the same emotional ground, in Walker’s case the death of his grandmother.

“Lyric for Strings” begins somberly, with descending two-note phrases leading to longer descending phrases that eventually turn upward. The tempo is slow, and the phrases blend into each other with a fateful inevitability. The melody that emerges is powerful and connected, without any romantic excess or sentimentality. It has a beautiful simplicity that was enhanced by the musicians’ expressive playing.

The camerawork during the performance was unobtrusive, consisting mainly of long zooms from the back, switching at times to remote cameras in the balconies to the east and west of the stage and in the seats below the stage. Another camera in the choir loft behind the stage offered front-on views of Lecce-Chong’s spare and elegant conducting.

The audio recording was likewise unobtrusive, with no obvious tricks other than rendering a crisp, clean sound with a wide dynamic range.

From the 20th century “Lyric for Strings,” the concert headed back to 16th century canzoni (songs) for brass by Giovanni Gabrieli, arranged by the symphony’s principal trombonist, Bruce Chrisp, who also provided a helpful introduction explaining how the pieces might have been performed at St. Mark’s in Venice, where Gabrieli served as music director.

As in St. Mark’s, the brass players appeared in three locations around the stage: a quartet in the east balcony; another quartet in the west balcony; and a final quartet in the choir loft, with Lecce-Chong conducting all three from his regular podium. These differing locations might not be so evident on a purely audio recording, but the combination of sound and image on YouTube created the illusion of spaciousness.

The performances of the two canzoni were top-notch, with impeccable playing from every corner. Lecce-Chong kept everyone together with his succinct gestures and brisk tempi. Recordings of Gabrieli brass pieces often dissolve into sonic mud, but these were light, airy and resonant, a perfect vessel for showing off Weill Hall’s vaunted acoustics.

Next up was contemporary composer Gabriela Lena Frank’s 2010 Escaramuza (skirmish) for strings, percussion, harp and piano, introduced by principal percussionist Allen Biggs. The piece, which was inspired by a type of Peruvian dance that celebrates Inca warriors, begins with a rousing, heavily syncopated bass drum solo, eventually followed by the rest of the percussion and timpani. Plucking strings and a piano part emerge from the din and settle into an equally syncopated tango-like dance in 7/8 time. The result is pure energy, with dance riffs racing across the stage in hot pursuit of each other.

Respectively, the first three pieces in the concert featured strings, brass and percussion, so the fourth piece fell to the woodwinds, who offered an admirable performance of Richard Strauss’s youthful “Serenade for Thirteen Wind Instruments,” introduced by principal flutist Kathleen Lane Reynolds.

Strauss was only 17 when he composed the wind serenade, but his distinctive sound and orchestration are already present. The piece began energetically, with each player adding sparkling embellishments to the propulsive theme. The music was definitely going somewhere, aided by the dynamic control, pitch-perfect intonation and sensitive phrasing of the musicians. The build-up to the final climax was particularly impressive.

When the first half ended, my eyes moved around the YouTube screen and discovered that more than 1,500 people were in attendance and that many of them had added congratulatory comments to a chat box next to the main image. Instead of ushering the audience into the lobby, the orchestra began lobbying the audience for money, a telltale sign of the financial challenges of the current pandemic.

When the appeals ended, the cameras moved back to the hall, where the reduced orchestra tuned in preparation for Beethoven’s first symphony (Op. 21). The tuning felt like the most “live” moment in this virtual performance, a sine qua non of the concert experience.

The smaller orchestra, which Lecce-Chong conducted without score, proved a revelation in experiencing Beethoven’s intricately woven textures. All the parts were distinct throughout, with heretofore hidden sounds shining through brightly. Lecce-Chong’s tempi and gestures were just right, and the players responded with crisp articulations and prominent sforzandos. Meanwhile, the minimal camerawork enhanced the music by not being distracting.

The fugue-like opening of the second movement was particularly entrancing. The paucity of instruments made the initial bars sound like a string quartet, with violins, violas and cellos entering gently and blending seamlessly. Other distinctive moments arrived in the third movement, where the string filigrees over the woodwinds were exceptionally well played.

In the fourth movement, the dynamics and balance were superb. All the parts fit together perfectly to propel the music forward. The rousing conclusion felt like a triumphant homecoming, with players who had been separated for more than half a year finally playing great music together.

The applause was deafeningly silent, but the players took advantage of the awkward space by waving goodbye to the main camera at the back of the hall.


Comments are welcome; send an email to Steve Osborn.