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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
Recital
AUTHORITATIVE BEETHOVEN SONATA IN KLEIN'S OCCIDENTAL RECITAL
by Terry McNeill
Friday, October 8, 2021
People attending the first Redwood Arts Council Occidental concert in 20 months found a surprise – a luxurious new lobby attached to the Performing Arts Center. It was a welcome bonus to a recital given by pianist Andreas Klein where the music seemed almost as familiar as was the long shuttered hal
Symphony
MOVIE MUSIC ON THE WINDSOR GREEN IN SO CO PHIL SEASON OPENER
by Terry McNeill
Sunday, October 3, 2021
People approaching the Windsor Green bandstand Oct. 3 for the Sonoma County Philharmonic’s season opening concert had some cause for concern. After 18 months of silence would the all-volunteer orchestra have enough musicians for a big movie music program? After all, performers can move, retire, or
Symphony
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 Julia
Symphony
TWO WIND SOLOISTS CHARM AT SSU ORCHESTRA CONCERT IN WEILL
by Terry McNeill
Sunday, September 26, 2021
The house of music has many rooms. That dusty adage was never truer than when Weill Hall Sept. 25 hosted a roaring New Orleans-style musical party, and less than a day later a mostly sedate Sonoma State University student orchestra performance. Before a crowd of 200 conductor Alexander Kahn led a
Other
CLEARY'S NEW ORLEANS BAND IGNITES PARTY FOR THE GREEN AT SSU
by Terry McNeill
Saturday, September 25, 2021
A dramatic and unique start to the new Green Music’s Center’ 2021-2022 season exploded in a “Party for the Green” Sept. 25, a New Orleans (NO) style commotion featuring Jon Cleary and his Absolute Monster Gentlemen band, inside and outside of Weill Hall. Beginning with a private gourmet dinner in t
GAULIST FLAVOR IN FINAL SF PIANO FESTIVAL CONCERT AT OLD FIRST
by Terry McNeill
Sunday, August 29, 2021
Final summer music festival programs are often a mix of what has come before, with the theme and even a featured composer taking a last stage appearance, with a dramatic wrap up composition. San Francisco’s International Piano Festival defied the norm August 29 with an eclectic French-flavored prog
SPARE DUO PRECEDES MYSTEROUS DUO AT DEN BOER RECITAL
by Terry McNeill
Friday, August 27, 2021
In a departure from usual summer festival fare Julia Den Boer played an August 27 virtual recital in the San Francisco Piano Festival’s 4.5 season with four works, all mostly quiet but all in separate ways insistently demanding of artist and listener. Throughout the 40 minutes there was nary a powe
HARMONIC COMPLEXITY IN PHILLIPS' ALL-GRIFFES RECITAL
by Terry McNeill
Friday, August 20, 2021
Charles Griffes’ piano music is similar to that of Busoni, Reger and even Poulenc, in that there is a sporadic flourish of interest with concerts and scholarly work, then a quick fade into another long period of obscurity. So, it was a delight to have an all-Griffes recital August 20 on the San F
Chamber
ONE PIANO, TWO PIANO, THREE PIANO, FORE
by Terry McNeill
Thursday, July 29, 2021
Schroeder Hall was nearly full July 29 for the final pianoSonoma concert of their season, and presumably the draw and highlight for many of the 150 attending was Bach’s Concerto for Four Pianos. And that performance was probably going to be a North Bay premiere. However, it wasn’t the highl
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.