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SYMPHONY REVIEW
Santa Rosa Symphony / Sunday, October 2, 2022
Francesco Lecce-Chong, conductor. Awadagin Pratt, piano

Awadagin Pratt Playing Mozart Oct. 2

FANTASTIC FANTASTIQUE AT SANTA ROSA SYMPHONY CONCERT

by Steve Osborn
Sunday, October 2, 2022

The Santa Rosa Symphony’s Oct. 2 concert featured three stars: Puerto Rican composer Angélica Negrón, pianist Awadagin Pratt and conductor Francesco Lecce-Chong.

After beginning the concert with a spirited rendition of Beethoven’s “Creatures of Prometheus” overture, Lecce-Chong invited Negrón to the stage to introduce her composition “Me he perdido” (I’ve gotten lost). Striking in a colorful dress and magenta hair, Negron described the robotic instruments that are integral to the work.

“Me he perdido” begins with sustained notes in the violins and violas, interrupted in short order by a resonant gong and other percussion. The brass enters to sustain the bass line, resulting in a dense, evocative texture. Atop the texture, the flutes play clusters of notes, almost like clouds. In this fast-evolving soundscape the strings create a wall of sound that the other instruments flow through. Adding to the wall is the dense sound of the robotic instruments. In fact, when this reviewer looked away for a moment, he was stunned to discover upon returning his gaze that the entire orchestra had stopped playing, leaving the music up to the mechanical marvels. The players resumed shortly thereafter, bringing the performance to a satisfying conclusion.

Pianos can also be transformed into mechanical marvels, such as player pianos, but these devices play only the notes, without any of the expression and phrasing human hands and feet can bring. Two of the best hands for that endeavor belong to Awadagin Pratt, who followed “Me he perdido” with a memorable performance of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23.

Mr. Pratt cuts an imposing figure upon the stage. Clad in a dark suit and sporting a full white beard, he looks every inch the sage. He sits straight on the piano bench, more inclined to lean backward than forward. As Mr. Lecce-Chong started the opening Allegro movement, Mr. Pratt fingered passages silently on the keys. When he began to play, he could be easily heard over the orchestra, and his phrasing benefited from crisp attacks and strong attention to rhythm and note values. By the time he reached the cadenza, he had already established a unique approach to phrasing and interpretation; but that was just the beginning. The cadenza seemed to be entirely his own, with none of the standard boilerplate performed by other pianists. For a couple of minutes, it was just Pratt and Mozart having an insightful musical conversation.

The pianist continued to shine in the rest of the concerto. In the gorgeous Adagio he maintained perfect balance with the orchestra, putting everyone on equal footing. He also added urgency to his playing through precise articulation, and he sustained musical momentum at all times.

The third movement is a constantly evolving call-and-response between piano and orchestra, where sometimes the piano calls and the orchestra responds, and sometimes the reverse. Pratt went first, establishing a brisk tempo. The intensity of the interchange slowly increased over the course of the movement, until both the artist and the orchestra were playing at top speed and volume, leading to a note-perfect ending and a standing ovation.

After intermission the third star of the show, Mr. Lecce-Chong, got his chance to shine with Berlioz's “Symphonie Fantastique.” His podium was in the usual spot and he conducted without score.

The upper strings began the first movement (“Daydreams”) flawlessly, with solid support from the cellos and basses. A strong sense of expectation hovered over the proceedings, which took a dramatic turn with a horn duet and a lovely violin melody over dense orchestral accompaniment. Mr. Lecce-Chong guided the complex score with minimal gestures and compact movements. He elicited gradual ritards and galloping accelerandos from the attentive players.

The second movement (“A Ball”) begins with an infectious dance tune that the conductor accentuated by swaying gracefully. The melody seemed to glide across the stage, enhanced by a long-developing crescendo that reached its apotheosis at the end. The subsequent “Scene in the Country” movement began with alternating solos from an offstage oboist (Laura Reynolds) and an onstage English horn (Jesse Barrett) that evoked a pastoral background. The full orchestra entered directly, egged on by Mr. Lecce-Chong, who faced individual instrumental sections in turn to guide their tempo and volume. Undaunted by the complex score, the players displayed their skill throughout the movement, with no stray notes or missed cues in evidence. Four drummers brought the proceedings to a close with portentous drum rolls between another set of onstage and offstage solos.

A young boy firmly in his mother’s grip down the row from me provided a good barometer of the Berlioz symphony’s effects. He began wiggling in “The Scene in the Country” movement but settled down in the next, “March to the Scaffold,” and was utterly rapt in the final “Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath.”

Indeed, the music coming from the stage had a different edge in the “March to the Scaffold.” The articulation by the brass was pointed and precise, and the entire brass section went all out each time the march resumed, with the tubas blaring. An extended bassoon solo intertwined with the strings to heighten the tension, and the combined orchestral forces thundered onward before resolving in a final emphatic note.

The jagged opening of “The Witches’ Sabbath” was brought to perfection by a superb clarinet solo from Roy Zajac, after which the orchestra stopped on a dime to make way for two sets of chimes in opposite corners of the balcony behind the stage. These rang out portentously, ushering in the famous “Dies Irae” theme, answered by a counter-melody in the brass, and then the strings. Mr. Lecce-Chong became a contortionist as he directed each section in this gripping call and response. The full orchestra began moving as one, with no loss of intensity until the final bar.