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REVIEW

Composer Nino Rota

LOVE AND DEATH CLOAKED IN BLISSFUL MELODY

by Steve Osborn
Monday, March 21, 2022

The March 20 Santa Rosa Symphony concert featured unexpected music from Ukraine, a composition without a conductor, a ballet based on a movie, and a symphonic sound that inspired countless movie composers. The concert was the first installment in a four-year series, titled “Rachmaninoff & the Hollywood Sound,” that pairs the Russian composer’s major orchestral works (three symphonies and the Symphonic Dances) with noteworthy movie scores.

Given its position in the series, this concert linked Rachmaninoff’s ill-fated first symphony (1895) with Nino Rota’s score for “La Strada,” the 1954 film directed by Federico Fellini and reworked into a ballet in 1966.

Two shorts preceded the double feature. The first was the “Nocturne for Strings” (1910) by the Ukrainian composer Fyodor Yakimenko, played in solidarity with his homeland. The nocturne is indeed nocturnal, with a serene Lento opening in the lower strings, followed by a gradual ascent up the scale and culminating in a lush cello solo magnificently played by Assistant Principal Robin Bonnell. The calm stood in stark contrast to the violence in present-day Ukraine.

After that stark reminder of the real world, the orchestra entered the realm of fantasy, semi-improvising its way through “From the Other Place” by contemporary Icelandic composer Hildur Gudnadóttir, who won an Oscar for her 2019 score for “The Joker.” “From the Other Place” is not a movie score, but one can imagine it serving as a soundtrack for slowly morphing intergalactic imagery from the Hubble Space Telescope.

As explained by conductor Francesco Lecce-Chong, Gudnadóttir’s score consists of colored dots through which the musicians weave a path of their own choosing. There’s no need for a conductor, and no two performances are exactly alike. Based on the performance heard in this concert, however, the outings are probably quite similar. The improvisation occurs within tightly constrained limits, leading to a fuzzy unanimity. Instead of a long stream of notes, imagine a cloud of sound hovering over a landscape. Everyone plays at the same volume, and there’s no dissonance because all the notes are drawn from the same chord.

Picking up the baton again, Mr. Lecce-Chong launched the orchestra headlong into Nino Rota’s visceral score for the “La Strada” ballet, which comprises not only music from the movie, but also new passages to accompany previously silent scenes. The opening is boisterous, evoking a circus in full performance, with acts spread across three rings. This is quickly followed by a calmer second theme and then a succession of short riffs from the tuba to the piccolo, with lots of percussion in the background, all performed with considerable élan by the orchestra’s gifted musicians.

The whirlwind tour ended with a drumroll and a march led by principal trombone Bruce Chrisp. Roy Zajac’s well-played clarinet solo gave way to a concerto-like violin passage from concertmaster Joseph Edelberg, complete with a cadenza and a resplendent tone. The playing from all instrumental sections was vigorous throughout, led precisely by the conductor’s compact yet expressive gestures. The timbre of each section seemed to embody a specific emotion from the film and ballet narrative.

Forebodings of doom arrived with the bass drum and the low winds, followed by an ironic version of the circus opening. The orchestra built to a triple-forte climax, leading to a memorable trumpet solo from Scott Macomber, who played with clarity and expression. From there it was but a short transition to the story’s tragic conclusion.

The influence of Rachmaninoff on the Hollywood (and Italian Hollywood) sound was evident from the opening bars of his first symphony, which Mr. Lecce-Chong described as “the most wildly ambitious orchestral music ever written.” That’s a bit hyperbolic, but there’s no denying Rachmaninoff’s lush atmosphere and brilliant orchestration. Many symphonists of Rachmaninoff’s era—Mahler, Sibelius, Shostakovich—were superb orchestrators, but Rachmaninoff invested his designs with a profound sense of drama and romance. The “Dies Irae” theme is always lurking in the background, along with passionate love songs: a perfect combination for the movies.

The first symphony is rarely performed, perhaps owing to its musical demands and its disastrous premiere at the hands of the Russian conductor Alexander Glazunov. Indeed, this was the Symphony’s first performance of the work in its 94-year history. The event proved well worth the wait. While not an unqualified masterpiece, the symphony contains enough youthful exuberance to hide its blemishes. Each movement is an adventure, leading up to the last, which taxes the orchestra’s capabilities to an extreme. Marked “Allegro con fuoco” (with fire), the movement opens with repeated bursts from the strings, followed by a brass fanfare and then a lively theme replete with syncopation.

A strong narrative propels the work forward. Hints of the “Dies Irae” theme led to a ferocious attack from the cellos, and then the violas. Ascending violin phrases end with a thumping bass drum. The ensemble playing was tight, with each section holding its own while rushing to a deceptive ending, punctuated by a gong. Brief applause was interrupted by the orchestra’s slow build-up to the real ending in a hopeful descending major scale.

The real applause was thunderous, prompting Mr. Lecce-Chong to recognize all the soloists, followed by an encore: Rota’s most famous theme, from “The Godfather.” More love and death cloaked in blissful melody.