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ECLECTIC PIANISM IN SPRING LAKE VILLAGE VIRTUAL RECITAL
by Terry McNeill
Wednesday, May 5, 2021
During the pandemic The Santa Rosa Symphony’s virtual concerts received their due in performance praise, but another series, Spring Lake Village, more quietly presented monthly virtual concerts to a select local audience. May 5 saw the latest event, produced by impresario Robert Hayden, and feature...
Symphony
SONIC CONTRASTS HIGHLIGHT SANTA ROSA SYMPHONY SPRING PROGRAM
by Terry McNeill
Sunday, April 25, 2021
In a curious mixture of compositions, the Santa Rosa Symphony’s penultimate virtual concert of the season April 25 unfolded in ways both highly satisfying and a bit perplexing. Directed by resident Music Director Francesco Lecce-Chong, the event followed a familiar format – several contemporary wor...
Symphony
ZUILL PLAYS ZWILICH WITH SANTA ROSA SYMPHONY
by Steve Osborn
Sunday, March 28, 2021
The Santa Rosa Symphony took a cautious step toward the return of live music in their March 28 virtual concert by sharing the stage with an actual live soloist rather than an apparition. Star cellist Zuill Bailey was still masked, and his back was toward the equally masked and plexiglassed orchestra...
Chamber
ECLECTIC CELLO PIANO VIRTUAL RECITAL FROM TOMKINS ZIVIAN DUO
by Terry McNeill
Sunday, March 28, 2021
The venerable 41-year Redwood Arts Council Series in Occidental has joined the virtual recital world with low budget but artistically satisfying programs, mostly using videos filmed in the performer’s residences. March 28 saw the Tanya Tomkins-Eric Zivian duo present an eclectic program from their ...
Symphony
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...
Chamber
NOVEL OBOE-HARPSICHORD RECITAL FROM AIKEN DUO IN UKIAH
by Terry McNeill
Sunday, February 21, 2021
Oboe and harpsichord recitals are a rare North Bay event, even in a pandemic environment where a formal hall setting isn’t available. So it was a delight Feb. 21 to experience on the Ukiah Symphony’s website a recital by Symphony oboist Beth Aiken and harpsichordist husband Tom. The Aiken home vis...
Symphony
A HEALTHY MIX OF TRANSCRIPTIONS AND ORIGINALS FROM THE SR SYMPHONY
by Steve Osborn
Sunday, January 24, 2021
Transcriptions and ascending arpeggios were the order of the day on Jan. 24, as the Santa Rosa Symphony performed uplifting works by Bach/Webern, Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, Marianna Martínes and Mozart. The concert video was made in Weill Hall on Jan. 9. The first transcription was Webern’s 1935 renderi...
Symphony
HEROIC EFFORT FROM THE SANTA ROSA SYMPHONY
by Steve Osborn
Sunday, December 13, 2020
December 13 was a rainy day, perfect for huddling indoors and watching a prerecorded “live” performance by the Santa Rosa Symphony. The program was expansive, with music from the 18th through 21st centuries, and the mood was festive, in keeping with the holiday season. There was something in the fea...
Symphony
MASKED SANTA ROSA SYMPHONY CARRIES ON BRILLIANTLY
by Steve Osborn
Sunday, November 15, 2020
In some ways the Santa Rosa Symphony’s Nov. 15 concert on YouTube resembled a Conceptual Art performance from the 1970s. On display were about 30 masked orchestral musicians playing six feet apart from each other on stage, some of them separated by plexiglass barriers. In the 1970s, the concept behi...
Chamber
SPLENDID STRINGS IN A SUNLIT GARDEN
by Abby Wasserman
Sunday, November 1, 2020
A sun-drenched autumn afternoon, a Marin County garden and six superb string players from the Santa Rosa Symphony were manna from heaven to a pandemic-weary audience starved for live music. The sextet of Santa Rosa Symphony musicians performed to a small group of 20 Nov. 1, the day after Halloween....
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.