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SILVER ANNIVERSARY BACH RECITAL AT INCARNATION'S EVENSONG SERVICE
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Symphony
JOY, LOVELY DIVINE SPARK!
by Steve Osborn
Sunday, December 4, 2022
Other
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by Terry McNeill
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SYMPHONY REVIEW
Santa Rosa Symphony / Sunday, December 4, 2022
Francesco Lecce-Chong, conductor. Elizabeth Prior, viola; Christopher Pfund, tenor; Abigail Nims, mezzo-soprano; Katherine Whyte, soprano; Michael Dean, bass. SSU Symphonic Chorus, Jenny Bent, director

SRS Dec. 4 in Weill Hall (P. Salyer Photo)

JOY, LOVELY DIVINE SPARK!

by Steve Osborn
Sunday, December 4, 2022

For the Dec. 4 Santa Rosa Symphony concert at the Green Music Center, the parking lot was full, and so was Weill Hall ... and so was the stage, including the choir loft at the back. The reason for all the fullness came down to the final ecstatic phrase of Beethoven’s Ninth, the star attraction of the concert: “Joy, lovely divine spark!”

Could Beethoven’s Ninth eventually displace Handel’s “Messiah” as the go-to piece for the holiday season? There’s a strong possibility that could happen, made all the stronger by the Santa Rosa Symphony’s performance on a dark and rainy afternoon, the second of three performances in the weekend set.

Beethoven’s D Minor Symphony began after a satisfying first half. Conductor Francesco Lecce-Chong took a long pause at the beginning while waiting for audience members to settle in their seats. After enough silence, he plunged into the first movement, a marvel of orchestral interchange and coordination. The opening bars of the movement consist of sustained notes in the brass coupled with rising and crescendoing string lines. Mr. Lecce-Chong coordinated all this effortlessly with minimal motion. As seen from the back, his arms rarely extended beyond his sides.

All aspects of the performance were tightly controlled. The violins, the most visible section of the orchestra, seemed almost synchronized, with matched bowings and phrasings. The woodwinds also achieved the same cohesion. The control extended throughout the movement, reaching its apogee near the end, when the entire orchestra performed a beat-perfect decelerando followed by a thundering crescendo

The second movement is marked Molto vivace, so the conductor opened at a sprint and rarely let up. The contrast between the speed of the notes and their musical container gave the impression of a horse trying to break free of its reins and gallop off into the wilderness. Despite an exquisitely played opening melody, the third movement, an Adagio, was a disappointment. The tempo was too slow, and some of the horn solos were fuzzy. By the end, the proceedings were grinding to a halt.

The sun rose again with the electrifying opening of the final movement. The tension built as the “Ode to Joy” motive progressed from section to section, constantly changing its form and shape until the full version arrived in the cellos and trumpets.

At that point, bass Michael Dean appeared upon the scene to sing the opening line of “Ode to Joy,” the poem upon which the movement is based: “O Freunde, nicht diese Töne” (O friends not these tones!). Mr. Dean’s voice was sonorous, and his German excellent. The choir, directed by Jenny Bent, included more than 100 singers from Sonoma State, Santa Rosa Junior College and Montgomery High School. They soon joined Mr. Dean in a full-throated rendition of another verse from the poem. Together, they sounded like a single voice. Next up was a quartet performed by the four vocal soloists. As is often the case, the tenor was hard to hear, but soprano Katherine Whyte more than made up for his lack of volume.

With the first round of singing over, the instrumentalists embarked on their own musical interlude, sometimes called the Turkish March because of its exotic percussion. Under Mr. Lecce-Chong’s firm hand, the musicians offered some of their best playing of the afternoon, bringing an extra spark to Beethoven’s magnificent score.

The choir returned after the Turkish March, careening headlong into a sublime double fugue. The interplay between choir and orchestra showed off the acoustic virtues of Weill Hall, where the choir loft is in an ideal position for projecting choral sound. After the choir reached the last line—Joy, lovely divine spark!—the orchestra took off at Mach speed and ended with a glorious flourish.

The first half of the concert didn’t feature all the bells and whistles of the second, but it was satisfying nonetheless. First up was “Soul Force” by Jessie Montgomery, a contemporary composer whose works the Symphony has played in the past. “Soul Force” opens with a bassoon playing a catchy motif over a steady drumbeat. The motif travels to a French horn and then to two trumpets. The strings enter next to play further iterations of the motif.

The brevity of “Soul Force” (8 minutes) didn’t allow for full motivic development, but it did display Ms. Montgomery’s ability to write a memorable sequence of notes and cast them into an orchestral form. She is a composer to watch.

“Flos Campi” (Flower of the Field), by Ralph Vaughan Williams, is rarely performed because of its unusual instrumentation (orchestra, solo viola and wordless chamber choir). By an amazing coincidence, all those forces were available in or near the hall, so Mr. Lecce-Chong put them to good use.

The viola soloist was Elizabeth Prior, the Symphony’s principal violist. The chamber choir was a combination of chamber choirs from SSU and SRJC.

As pointed out in the program notes and elsewhere, the English translation of “Flos Campi” is misleading because it makes audiences believe that the piece, in Vaughan Williams’s words, is about “butterflies and daisies.” For that, Vaughan Williams has only himself to blame. If he had given the full Latin phrase (Ego flos campi) in the title, the translation (I am the rose of Sharon) would have been much better understood as a line from the Song of Songs in the Bible.

The work does indeed make more sense once you understand the references. It began quietly, with Ms. Prior playing deep notes on her resonant viola. Her tone is dense, with true heft, and she sounded best on the lower strings. The choir entered wordlessly behind her, and the orchestra sprang to life. The balance between all three—choir, viola, orchestra—was superb, with each group holding its own in the swaying melody.

The piece concluded with a fugue from the choir and a long crescendo to the end.