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Recital
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Chamber
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Opera
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Chamber
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Recital
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Opera
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Choral and Vocal
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by Pamela Hicks Gailey
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Opera
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SYMPHONY REVIEW
Santa Rosa Symphony / Sunday, October 3, 2021
Francesco Lecce-Chong, conductor. Julian Rhee, violin

Violinist Julian Rhee

SANTA ROSA SYMPHONY RETURNS IN TRIUMPH

by Steve Osborn
Sunday, October 3, 2021

It is often the case that a single piece or performer steals the show at a symphony concert, but at the Oct. 3 performance of the Santa Rosa Symphony, the show itself stole the show. The concert opened with a serene 1982 tone poem by Libby Larsen, followed by a masterful performance by soloist Julian Rhee of Mozart’s “Turkish” violin concerto and a dazzling rendition of “Rust,” a 2016 piece by wunderkind Gabriella Smith, and ending with a puzzle-solving version of Elgar’s “Enigma Variations.”

Libby Larsen is one of the most distinctive voices in contemporary music, and many of her distinguishing characteristics are evident in “Deep Summer Music.” A lush melody in the first violins set against repeated figures in the winds proved instantly soothing. The melody soon gave way to sweeping lines complemented by an elegant solo from trumpeter Scott Macomber. A long series of cadences allowed the piece to settle down smoothly and inevitably, but the trumpet reappeared at key moments to disrupt the flow, with shades of Ives’ “Unanswered Question” lingering in the background.

Conductor Francesco Lecce-Chong introduced the Mozart violin concerto by recalling how impressed he was when he first conducted the then 14-year-old Julian Rhee. Eight years later, the two of them were reunited for Mozart’s much-loved concerto, which calls for prodigious skill and musicality on the violin.

Mr. Rhee proved more than equal to the task. His long opening note was breathtakingly pure and expressive, and all the subsequent notes were exactly in tune and wonderfully phrased. He seemed fully relaxed as he held his violin high in the air, bending and swaying slightly at the knees to reflect his insightful phrasing. His tone was warm and penetrating, and he could be easily heard above the orchestral background; balance was never a problem. On top of all that, his bow remained consistently parallel to the bridge, getting full and consistent value from every note.

Mr. Rhee’s playing with the orchestra was a delight, but his cadenzas were something else again. In the first movement, he restated the opening theme with a cascade of figurations and ornaments before launching into an extended set of variations that celebrated the ancient and enduring art of musical improvisation. The cadenza for the second movement was no less gripping, eliciting complete silence from the wonderstruck audience.

The Rondo third movement was the most joyful, with Mr. Rhee digging into his lower strings and playing the “Turkish” (actually Hungarian) theme with vigor and élan. The orchestra was superb as well, handling both col legno playing and dramatic swells with equal aplomb. In its ultimate return, the opening theme was as fresh as when it first appeared, but the ending was anti-climactic, with the music trailing off at the end of an ascending arpeggio. For that we have only Mozart to blame.

The applause was so resounding that the violinist returned for an encore, a playful improvisation on the famous Preludio to Bach’s third partita for solo violin. After playing the first few bars of the Preludio, Rhee launched into a madcap medley of celebrated violin themes, returning constantly to the Preludio. In the concluding section, the “Dies Irae” theme entered the mix, casting an eerie pall on the proceedings.

Thus ended the first half, but the symphony was just getting started. Gabriella Smith, born in Berkeley in 1991, has rocketed to fame on the strength of her wildly imaginative orchestrations, and her piece “Rust,” which started the second half, put those talents on full display.

Opening with the final bars of a Vivaldi concerto, the piece rapidly engaged all parts of the orchestra in contrary motion. The winds rose and fell while the violins stayed relatively constant above the fray. Repeated notes in the brass added to the momentum, even as breathy sounds from the flutes gave the texture an otherworldly sheen. Tremolo from the strings added to the density as wave upon wave of sound swept across the orchestra, punctuated at the end by a dramatic swoosh from the brass. The performance was almost ecstatic, with all hands on deck. Smith is a force to be reckoned with, and one imagines that the orchestra’s premiere of her first symphony next spring will only add to her fame.

One of the many pleasures of listening to Elgar’s “Enigma Variations” is trying to discern the musical clues to the 14 people portrayed therein. Some of the clues are obvious, such as the percussive slams in the fourth variation depicting the door-slamming British squire William Meath Baker. Other clues are subtler, requiring close attention or musical replays. The biggest enigma of all, however, is which theme provides the basis for the variations. The piece begins with a variation, never stooping to provide an actual theme, so the hunt has been on for more than a century.

The Santa Rosa Symphony’s performance of the variations gave strong evidence that the elusive theme might occur in broad daylight in the famous “Nimrod” variation, a staple of memorial services and patriotic British films. Fragments of that powerful melody occur throughout the other variations, particularly in the final one, a portrait of Elgar himself. Mr. Lecce-Chong emphasized these fragments whenever they occurred, helping to unify the piece and connect its disparate parts.

Enigmas aside, the performance was spectacular, from the rhythmic interplay of the “Dorabella” variation to the cello solos in the “Nevinson” section. The mysterious “****” variation was both moody and atmospheric, with its waves of sound suggesting an ocean voyage. The superb ensemble playing reached its pinnacle in the concluding accelerando, and the Weill Hall organ joined in for a thundering finale.