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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
Santa Rosa Symphony / Sunday, February 28, 2021
Francesco Lecce-Chong, conductor

Composer Ellen Taafe Zwilich

SANTA ROSA SYMPHONY HITS THE SWEET SPOT

by Steve Osborn
Sunday, February 28, 2021

Small orchestras can inhabit a sweet spot between chamber ensembles and full orchestras, but how well they hit that spot depends on the composer's orchestration and the players' ability to project. That dependence was on full display in the Santa Rosa Symphony's Feb. 28 concert, which featured three pieces for small orchestra and one for string orchestra.

The opener, a 1957 serenade for small orchestra by the African American composer William Grant Still (1895-1978), featured lush sound and a bewitching atmosphere. The melodic material was distinctly American and evoked wide-open spaces, almost like a soundtrack for a Western. Harp and cellos led the way as the orchestra eased into a full-bore expressive melody, punctuated at times by blue notes. Midway through the piece, the sound transitioned to a Native American hue, in the tradition of Dvorak. The world conjured by the piece was beguiling and majestic, with nary a break in the mood. One can only hope to hear more of Still's work in the future.

A different sonic realm unfolded in the next piece, Wagner's "Siegfried Idyll." Here the landscape was an enchanted forest, with occasional birdcalls and a brilliant sunrise. Conductor Francesco Lecce-Chong kept the orchestra at a stately pace with well-controlled dynamics as they floated through Wagner's woods. Two complementary motifs - one of five notes and the other of six - dominate the piece in one form or another from beginning to end. The players did a superb job of handing the motifs from section to section, with seamless transitions and gradual changes of mood.

The strings sustained a rich sound throughout, despite their limited numbers. In one memorable section, a long tremolo in the strings offered a perfect backdrop for a woodwind interlude. The playing showed off a small orchestra at its finest, with clean textures and protean shifts of mood. The tension and release of Wagner's drama was palpable. Lecce-Chong's restrained motions let everyone relax, and the soft ending, with its lovely horn, flute and oboe solos, landed perfectly. A closing shot of a cellist's languid vibrato seemed particularly apt.

Ellen Taafe Zwilich, whose compositions are included in all the Symphony's spring programs, offered an insightful remote video introduction to the next piece, her 1983 "Prologue and Variations for String Orchestra”, which she called a "love song to string instruments." Instead of following a traditional theme-and-variations format, Ms. Zwilich uses a prologue with four distinct musical ideas, each of which receives its own development, or "variation," in the rest of the piece.

The prologue makes extensive use of Shostakovich's musical signature (D, E-flat, C, B) and sounds much like an early Shostakovich string quartet. Indeed, tropes from Shostakovich suffuse the variations, including short bursts of sound, machine-gun chords, sharply etched phrases and repeated riffs. The sound world may be Shostakovich-inspired, but the mood of the piece is much less frantic and despairing than the Russian master's. It was wonderful to hear how the composer’s repeating elements fit together to create forward motion, and the performance was exemplary.

For the closer, Mr. Lecce-Chong selected Dvorak's infrequently played "Czech Suite" for small orchestra. In general, this five-movement suite of dances lacks the heft of Dvorak's symphonies and the intimacy of his chamber music, although it does have memorable melodies in the second and fourth movements.

The performance of the first dance, a pastorale, began promisingly with a strong rhythm driven by the bassoons. The strings then offered a fluid and lilting melody above that background, to lovely effect. The somewhat famous polka followed with a subtle echo effect and a beguiling simplicity, but it didn't sound like a dance. One wished the orchestra could have dug in more to transform the notes into swirling movement.

The subsequent sousedská (minuet) was even more staid and unconvincing. The tempo was too slow, and the musicians didn't seem fully engaged. Fortunately, the following dance, a romance, began with strong flute (Kathleen Lane Reynolds) and English horn solos, and the orchestra ratcheted up a notch. The finale, a fast-paced furiant, was superb. The conductor set a brisk tempo, and he guided the players through Dvorak's dense orchestration with ease. The sound was rich and detailed, despite the fast pace. Near the end, a Baroque-sounding cadence seemed to bring matters to a close, but it was quickly superseded by a vigorous final outburst.