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SYMPHONY REVIEW
Vallejo Symphony / Sunday, April 24, 2022
Marc Taddei, conductor. Jeffrey LaDeur, piano

Jeffre LaDeur's Cadenza in the Rachmaninoff Concerto

VSO'S ELEGANT PASTORAL SYMPHONY SHINES IN EMPRESS RETURN

by Terry McNeill
Sunday, April 24, 2022

After an extended COVID wait the Vallejo Symphony returned to the city’s Empress Auditorium April 23 and 24 with a program that easily proved the long layoff didn’t lesson the VSO’s legendary quality. The Sunday performance is reviewed here.

One of the highlights of the afternoon was the seldom-heard Rachmaninoff F-Sharp Minor Concerto, the early work that was a lifetime favorite of the composer, and featured San Francisco-based pianist Jeffrey LaDeur in a powerhouse performance that at the end generated a standing ovation.

Following the initial orchestral fanfare the pianist’s descending double octaves in triplets gave notice that the opening Vivace would be potent throughout. The magisterial first theme appeared many times in the piano and horn (Sue Vollmer) parts, with lovely counter phrases by the violas and cellos. A convincing reading of this movement usually comes down to the cadenza where potent passion as well as virtuoso fingers and feet are critical. Mr. LaDeur didn’t disappoint, perhaps without the last ounce of tumult displayed in the composer’s 1940 recording, or Virginia Eskin’s sterling reading with the Boston Symphony.

Here must be noted pianist Jorge’s Bolet’s comment to young pianists – “one of the most difficult things you will ever encounter playing with an orchestra is to tell the conductor that the orchestra is to loud.” This was the case in this performance, the solo part at times covered, but perhaps also caused with a too-close fifth-row reviewing seat and the Empress’ bright acoustics and reverb.

Things quieted in in the brief Andante movement where Mr. LaDeur’s rich tone color lavished the long expressive melody, and playing in the finale changed melodic interest to rhythmic excitement. The lyric interplay between pianist and orchestra was brilliant, with fistfuls of notes in true Rachmaninoff style cascading from Mr. LaDeur’s instrument.

Two extra-performance items followed the last chords. The soloist has repeated curtain calls, and dispensing with a more conventional short encore, played something brief – a Scriabin Prelude that was broken into four parts, each about ten seconds, with the pianist holding up successive fingers in his right hand, one two, three, four. The second was an announcement from Mr. Taddei that the hall’s resident piano, a Baldwin from the 1950s, had been rebuilt and was getting its maiden voyage with a virtuoso. Contrarians will welcome seeing a concert Baldwin on a professional stage, a marque that is gone from North Coast halls, save perhaps for one in Ft. Bragg’s Cottom Auditorium.

As good as the Concerto performance was, Beethoven’s F Major Symphony, Op. 68, produced the afternoon’s finest playing. Mr. Taddei, without score, drew from his Orchestra a sweeping reading that was at times explicitly rich and at times artfully suggestive. Control of dynamics and balancing phases in instrumental sections found Mr. Taddei in fine form, making the most of this ingratiating music that in his hands was deftly crafted and never sounded repetitive. Melanie Keller’s perky flute solos characterized the Andante Molto Mosso, and the transition to the storm movement was appropriately seamless. Tympanist John Weeks, stationed at an odd stage left position in the small Empress space, provided thunder when needed. Everything about this 42-minute performance unfolded with warm precision.

The concert opened with Caroline Shaw’s Entr’acte for string orchestra, newly popular and played recently by the Santa Rosa Symphony. At a less than brisk clip of 14 minutes, the music featured Bridget Pasker’s sorrowful cello line frequently echoed by the pizzicato strings and the effective just-off-pitch demands of the score. Violinist Joyce Lee’s high register slides and squeaks sounded unique, as did Ms. Pasker’s coda where she played short phrases of swells and pauses, followed by softly strumming her instrument with guitar-like notes fading to an eerie silence.

Mr. Taddei announced UC Davis composer Trey Makler as the Orchestra's first composer in residence, and that Mr. Makler’s work “Pixie” will be heard at the June 18 and 19 VSO concerts in the Empress.