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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

Cellist Zuill Bailey

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, but no barriers separated them musically or emotionally.

Bailey was there to give the West Coast premiere of a cello concerto published last year by the Symphony’s artistic partner, Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, whose diverse works grace all five of the Symphony’s concerts this winter and spring.

In a pre-concert interview with conductor Francesco Lecce-Chong, Zwilich observed that the cello covers almost the entire range of the human voice and can be considered as a kind of opera singer. Her concerto exploits that range repeatedly, with the cello often beginning a phrase on the low C string and racing up three or more octaves to a contrasting blue note on the high A.

Blue notes are at the heart of the concerto, which evokes a Jazz Age sound throughout, reminding one more of Gershwin than of postwar bebop and beyond. Mr. Bailey dominated from the outset, cradling the cello in his large frame and using his powerful fingers to land pitch-perfect notes in all registers. Playing to an imaginary audience in front of the stage, he often resembled a tenor saxophone soloist trading riffs with a backup band.

The concerto consists of three movements (labeled I, II and III, with no tempo markings) that blend into each other seamlessly and share a range of tempos and melodic material. The one constant is a persistent call-and-response structure, with the orchestra on one side and Mr. Bailey on the other. Sometimes a soloist, such as a clarinet or a trumpet, stands in for the orchestra, but the cellist was mostly by himself. Watching him nail his runs, particularly in the upper registers, was a constant pleasure.

As a piece, the concerto could have used more forward motion and more integration of soloist and orchestra. At times the music seemed to stall, with neither side able to move beyond its riffs and combine into a more diverse whole. Nonetheless, the playing and conducting were superb throughout.

Forward motion may have been lacking in the Zwilich concerto, but it was abundant in the concert opener, Jessie Montgomery’s “Starburst” for string orchestra, composed in 2012. This aptly named three-minute romp begins strong and ends explosively. A powerful bass line is soon joined by short bursts from the violins, replete with syncopations and energetic rhythms. Fluid melodies from the rest of the orchestra join in, with many repeated triplets and vibrant chords. Tension builds as all the parts work together to produce unexpected rhythms, satisfying repetitions, swirling melodies and lively accents. It all ends with a bang, making for a superb curtain raiser.

An abrupt change of mood followed with Samuel Barber’s often-played “Adagio for Strings” (1938). Arturo Toscanini, who championed the piece, called it “simple and beautiful,” and it is certainly that, befitting almost any solemn occasion. The occasion that immediately sprang to mind for this concert was a remembrance for all who have died from Covid 19 over the past year.

Mr. Lecce-Chong set a stately tempo and drew fully sustained notes from the strings, along with gradual crescendos in the ascending lines. Conducting equally with both hands, he often resembled a swimmer moving toward the surface after a deep dive. The pause in the middle of the piece was literally breathtaking. The camerawork was also better than usual, with many closeups of fully engaged players.

One of the reasons Barber’s “Adagio” works so well is that the rise-and-fall structure is so apparent. The same holds true for the second-half opener, Charles Ives’ haunting “The Unanswered Question.” Over an ethereal, slow-moving string background from the stage, a trumpet poses a five-note question from the back balcony. Several woodwinds, standing in the choir loft behind the stage, offer a tentative answer. This pattern repeats six times, with the woodwinds giving increasingly frantic answers. On the seventh time, the question goes unanswered, leaving nothing but the strings.

The structure is ingenious in itself, but the sound is what made the piece memorable in this performance. The long string chord, played with minimal vibrato, evolved into a virtual cloud; the winds became so desperate that they seemed to be gasping for breath; and the trumpet’s piercing question kept ringing in the ears long after the last note.

The concert concluded with Brahms’ second orchestral Serenade, which was a joy from beginning to end. The highlights were many, from the euphonious blending of the winds in the opening Allegro, to the sprightly duets in the subsequent Scherzo, to the symphonic expressive longing of the central Adagio. A lively duple time animated the penultimate Minuet, and the final Rondo was positively thrilling, with its brisk tempo and Stacey Pelinka’s cheerful piccolo playing.