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Lightweight Fare Closes Santa Rosa Symphony's Virtual Season

By: Brian Lloyd, May 17, 2021 - Classical Sonoma

Farewells are often such sweet sorrows. That emotion was apparent May 16 at the season’s final Santa Rosa Symphony’s virtual concert, dedicated to the memory of Sonoma County musical icon Norma Brown who died May 13 (see related article).

Rossini’s overture to his opera “Il Signor Bruschino” opened the concert, a photo of the jovial composer fronting the video while the frothy music and almost perfect syncopated bow tapings from the strings created gaiety. Two years ago the Mendocino Musical Festival mounted the entire opera, with the overture capably played but lacking the Santa Rosa’s flair and sonority.

Michael Daugherty’s “Aesclepius” Fanfare for Brass and Percussion is a “you had to be there” piece, the stentorian magic of horns needing close proximity and a reverberant setting to give full effect. A simple syncopated theme introduced by horns was repeated with the addition of chimes, and as percussion joined in a Passacaglia I was reminded of Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man. More dynamic phrasing would have helped this performance, but as expected and even wanted it ended with a heroic explosion of sound.

Continuing the concert’s witty blueprint were bright colored plastic tubes that performers whirled aloft in G Sharp to begin Paul Dooley’s six-minute Sonoma Strong. The Symphony premiered this work in summer, 2018, and the initial pastoral mood of two years ago came back to mind, especially in bassoonist Karla Wilson’s playing in the quiet interlude in the middle of the piece that evoked Dvorák’s Silent Woods (Op. 68) for cello and orchestra. The mood progressed in 3/4 and 6/8 time to calypso drums and a happy community celebratory sound in 5/4, and was the highlight of the afternoon.

Zwilich’s Peanuts Gallery for Piano and Orchestra is a light piece with homage to Beethoven in several of the movements, and perhaps Harry Potter composers should also get a nod. If you identify the Peanuts cartoons as programmatic, then these six short pieces are programmatic music. After the Beethoven Op. 106 B-Flat Sonata opening the music is led by strings and flutist Kathleen Reynolds into the welcoming dapple lit woods, then a valley pasture humorously evoked by downward double bass glissandos.

In the fifth movement (Lucy Freaks Out) conductor Francesco Lecce-Chong fashioned a plaintive drama from percussion and pianist Elizabeth Dorman, with second violinist Sharon Shinozaki’s solo leading bouncing strings and woodwinds to the end. The finale’s syncopated march is written in perhaps a New Orleans street style, but here the conductor found Shostakovich and Prokofiev leading each stride. Without warning, polyrhythms and Ms. Dorman’s downward scale flourishes recaptured the Beethoven spirit in a loud and spirited ending.

Closing the concert and the virtual 2020-2021 season was Haydn’s F-Sharp Minor Symphony (“Farewell”), No. 45. It’s not a virtuoso symphony but a light, “get out of town” symphony, and the music’s simplicity and directness present a conductoral challenge.

Nuance is always desirable in Haydn’s “Farewell”, written in 1772, and the initial Forte notes left insufficient room for delicate dynamic shading needed later. In addition to starting too loud this performance never fully explored or even reached true pianissimo. The composer called for muted strings in Adagio second movement, and with the 18th’s Century’s less string tension and gut construction he clearly wanted things pretty damn quiet. The reason for all this quietude is to exploit subtle and nuanced phrasing, and here an opportunity was lost to add expressive emotional content.

In the finale’s Presto-Adagio Mr. Lecce-Chong started a little slowly but subsequently shaped the music with high urgency, spotlighting a long silence with the return to Adagio in A major. What bold harmonic writing in the 1770s, F-Sharp Minor to A Major!

In the now famous “farewell” in the finale the instrumentalists played a few planned ragged entrances before departures stage left and right, with no cutesy body language save for furtive goodbye waves to the cameras. Concertmaster Joseph Edelberg and Ms. Shinozaki were the last persons standing, and both elegantly bowed to the empty Weill Hall.

As throughout this season the audio and video production and individual player’s close up solos and visual fades were creatively done, and the usual intermission interview with Mr. Lecce-Chong and Ms. Zwilich was instructive and laced with humor.

Terry McNeill contributed to this review.

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