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May 8, 2018: Ferrandis Bids Farewell with Mahler’s Last Symphony

By: Steve Osborn, May 8, 2018 - San Francisco Classical Voice

Sonoma State University students in graduation robes posed for pictures and hugged each other at the stone gates last Sunday afternoon, mirroring the prolonged farewells within the university’s Green Music Center. There, with an unforgettable performance of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony, Bruno Ferrandis bade adieu to the Santa Rosa Symphony after a dozen years at the helm. Some audience members took photographs to commemorate the event, but my most vivid remembrance is of the beautiful sonorities and hushed expectancy of the symphony’s closing moments.

At some 80 minutes, the Mahler could have constituted the entire program, but a wine-sipping intermission was obligatory, so Ferrandis and company opened with Temporis, a 2015 concerto for cimbalom by the Czech composer Michal Rataj, with cimbalom soloist Jan Mikušek.

The concert cimbalom is a trapezoidal Eastern European instrument that resembles a horizontal harp, with strings that are struck by mallets, plucked with fingers, or otherwise set to vibrating. The sound that emerges is reminiscent of plucked piano strings, with considerable resonance but not much volume.

Rataj’s score harnessed these resonances to the orchestra by setting most of the dynamics at pianissimo and alternating orchestral bursts with cimbalom solos. The resulting sound was often ethereal, tenuous, and ghostly. At times, the cimbalom sounded like bells, but more often like a cloud of notes gently settling over the stage.

While the acoustics were striking, the underlying musical form was elusive. Forward motion and thematic development were hard to detect under the obscuring sonic mist. The conclusion was memorable, however. First, Mikušek sang a wordless phrase, and then he seemed to make all the cimbalom’s strings resonate at once, erecting a veritable wall of sound that slowly dissipated. He followed Temporis with an encore of more traditional cimbalom repertoire, singing the Czech folk song “Up on the Hill” while accompanying himself on his instrument. The blend was irresistible.

Cimbaloms were popular in Mahler’s day, but he didn’t include any in the massive 90-person orchestra required to play his final symphony. Virtually every section of the ensemble increased in size, nowhere more so than the woodwinds, whose numbers doubled. Pianissimo markings were abundant, but so were thundering crescendos, triple fortes, and — more than anything else — the composer’s premonitions of his impending death.

The Ninth opens minimally in the cellos and horns, but their sound soon evolves into a full-throated roar marked by a descending two-note motive. Ferrandis was by turns restrained, animated, and energetic as he guided the players through the opening movement’s many twists and turns. A feeling of expectancy suffused the playing, even as harmonic resolution kept receding in the distance.

Gustav Mahler in 1907, near the end of his lifeThe challenge of the first movement is to keep the story moving forward and not let it get buried by the incessant barrage of notes. Here Ferrandis and the players succeeded admirably. They played each of the many climaxes at full force, but they never let up in the ensuing moments of quietude. One could hear the sounds of doom in the woodwinds and brass as the orchestra finally wound down with a series of exquisite solos from the principal horn, violin, oboe, and harp.

In the second movement, the mood changed abruptly to a country dance in three-quarter time. The playing was jaunty and the oft-repeated trills impressive, but the tempo often dragged.

In contrast, the third movement was a whirling dervish, with frenzied playing all around. The movement opens with a simple three-note motive that is handed from section to section, like a fugue. The complexity and tension mounted until a beautiful solo from the principal trumpet slowed everyone down. Ferrandis guided the orchestra expertly through the sudden change and kept pushing through the inexorable build-up to the presto closing.

Such an invigorating ending might satisfy a lesser composer, but Mahler sets all the preceding movements aside to embark on his last, one of the most gorgeous in the repertoire. The violins opened with a magisterial melody, followed by a superb horn solo as the violins hovered above in nearly perfect intonation. A sense of finality crept in as all the strings joined in the lament. The moment was so spine-tingling that the elderly couple next to me suddenly grasped each other’s hands.

After the strings relented, the woodwinds took over, slowly building upward with a series of commendable solos. The entire orchestra joined in for a triple-forte climax, immediately followed by a triple piano. A hush descended on the audience as the symphony gradually faded away, marked by an elegiac solo from the principal cellist and a last word from the violas. Ferrandis extended the silence for a long moment, gathering his composure before bidding farewell to the cheering crowd.

May 8, 2018: Bruno Ferrandis says farewell to the Santa Rosa Symphony with well-chosen Mahler

By: Joshua Kosman, May 8, 2018 - San Francisco Chronicle

The Santa Rosa Symphony and Music Director Bruno Ferrandis parted company on Monday, May 7, in the most sweet and appropriate way possible: with words of appreciation and a largely stirring performance of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony.
Even though he went on to compose and sketch out extensive parts of an incomplete Tenth Symphony, the Ninth still stands as Mahler’s stirring farewell to the joys and pains of the world. The heart condition that would eventually kill him had already been detected, his marriage was in disarray, and he was no stranger to self-pity even in the best of circumstances.
Ferrandis, fortunately, is departing from Santa Rosa after 11 seasons in a rather less lugubrious fashion. Monday’s concert, the last of three at the Green Music Center in Rohnert Park, found conductor and orchestra administering a healthy challenge to their communal abilities — the Ninth is notoriously difficult both technically and interpretively — and rising to meet it with increasing assurance.
The French conductor, who next season cedes his baton to Francesco Lecce-Chong, was greeted by a standing ovation as soon as he took the stage, and he opened the proceedings with heartfelt words of thanks to the orchestra’s patrons, donors and musicians. The short first half of the program was devoted to a performance of “Temporis,” a work for cimbalom (the Eastern European hammer dulcimer) by Czech composer Michal Rataj.
But it was the Mahler that both took up the bulk of the evening and conveyed the main expressive impetus of the occasion. From the halting, dissociative opening gesture, which soon melted into a bath of tender lyricism, to the shimmery fade-out of the symphony’s final moments, this felt like a deft summing-up of the moment.
That’s not to deny that the demands of this score were often daunting. The strings, especially in the first movement, sounded underpopulated, which allowed the brass to run roughshod over them; the music in the rushing waltz sections of the scherzo tended to trip over its own feet.
Yet the brass playing, for all its aggressive edge, was always beautiful and darkly expressive, which made the boisterous third movement a vivacious stomping ground. And by the time the ruminative finale arrived, everyone was coordinating beautifully — the strings richly upholstered, the woodwind and brass solos decorous and forthright. The last minutes of the symphony made a poignant farewell.
Rataj’s 20-minute score, which featured Jan Mikusek as soloist, turned out to be full of intriguing sonorities, as the orchestra fastened upon individual notes from the cimbalom — a weighty fundamental low note, or a high pitch that drew the trumpet into its orbit — and turned them into material for further exploration.
Still, the overall course of the piece felt dramatically flat. The tempo changed little, and different sections of the piece came and went without much articulation. The most striking aspect was the composer’s inclusion of a stealth vocal part; midway through the piece, Mikusek (who later showed off his vocal abilities with a folk-song encore) began adding sustained notes in a powerful falsetto, leaving audience members to start scanning the stage for the mystery singer.
What was surely true about “Temporis” was that it served as an apt setup for the Mahler to follow — Rataj’s vivid and resourceful use of the orchestra and his moodily expressive palette almost seemed designed to bring the audience into Mahler’s world. And that in turn helped ring down the curtain on Ferrandis’ tenure in a satisfying way.

May 7, 2018: Mahler's symphonic farewell to us all

By: Paul Hertelendy, May 7, 2018 - ArtsSF

ROHNERT PARK, CA—After 12 years, the Santa Rosa Symphony is bidding au revoir, or perhaps adieu, to Music Director Bruno Ferrandis. Never one to skimp on challenges, the French conductor programmed the fiendishly difficult 81-minute Mahler Ninth Symphony—an apt adieu for the composer himself—along with a contemporary concerto.

In this go-round of the  Ninth of 1910,  for all but the first movement I’d give glowing reviews. The rustic country dance of the second movement went spiritedly, rowdy enough to contrast with the urbane First. This was just what was needed: No spit-and-polish metropolitan discipline, but rather dances of peasants who also thrived in the Austrian Empire back then. The irony-laced Third was trenchant; here Mahler appeared to take musical potshots at his critics, bolstered by the oh-so-solid SRS brass players.

In the finale the poetic string section brought home the composer’s poignant, ardently romantic farewell theme as it vacillated between major and minor keys. At the end, the orchestra was magnificent in carrying off one of the most nebulous closes ever, fading, fading, until nothing. This was pure Mahler, mingling joy with sadness over his prematurely declining health.

The demanding half-hour-long opening movement was less fortunate—the musicians played all the notes, but they never jelled into an ensemble effect. Happily the rest of the magnum opus was admirable (when heard May 6), showing off Meredith Brown’s glowing horn section as well as other sections too numerous to name. The performance  was rewarded by the sell-out house’s prolonged ovation, for both Ferrandis and the orchestra.

The contemporary companion  piece was a unique surprise: a concerto for cimbalom, a mallet instrument seemingly halfway between a zither and a harpsichord with the top removed. Its strings are struck by supple mallets producing a soft metallic sound, and it is heard mostly in gypsy orchestras in Romania, Slovakia and points between, always playing by ear, not from a score. To add to the challenge, the strings are not arranged by consecutive pitches—a nightmare for a visiting pianist.

When virtuoso Jan Mikusek sat down however at the cimbalom to do the solos of Michal Rataj’s “Temporis” (2015), he used a score. The one-movement 19-minute work calls for a large orchestra that is mostly silent, as the dulcet cimbalom cannot play forte or fortissimo. Rataj’s piece focuses on effects (unusual ones) rather than themes or melodies. While Makusek plays the mellifluous arpeggiated chords, the orchestra will retort in subdued fashion with glints of air blown through brass, or bows drawn across metallic percussion. Now and then a pre-recorded wordless voice sounds a note. The strings and winds are barely audible. After a stormy moment or two, the work reverts to the serenity of near-silence.

Mikusek, who by profession is normally a choral conductor, added the most unusual encore ever: He played a folk song “Up on the Hill” on the cimbalom and sang it, in a pleasant baritone.  Mikusek, Rataj, “Temporis” and the folk song all originated in the Czech Republic—a land that also includes the Austrian Mahler’s birthplace. So, in a way, an all-Czech event.

So now Music Director Ferrandis moves on. Some chafed at his continuing to live abroad after getting this job some 70 miles north of San Francisco, unable to fulfill a community’s many musical needs apart from leading the symphony in seven sets of triple classical concerts. But he did shape and oversee a commendable and sometimes outstanding orchestra in recent years, maintaining high professional standards, while the SRS benefited greatly from the awesome acoustic environment of Weill Hall which opened during his tenure. Yes, the orchestra belongs in Santa Rosa. But to get such an enhancing acoustical environment, it’s worth their while to travel seven miles south every time to Weill, shared with the campus community of Sonoma State University.

And shortly the baton will be  passed to the new maestro in town, Francesco Lecce-Chong, 30, of Italian-Chinese descent. He beat out four other finalists, all older than he. His SRS concerts begin Oct. 6 with, interesting enough, no French music at all for that 91st SRS season.

April 10, 2018: It's all about the voice at Santa Rosa Symphony

By: Steve Osborn, April 10, 2018 - San Francisco Classical Voice

In an April 8 Santa Rosa Symphony concert filled to the brim with instruments — electric violin, vibraphone, marimba, xylophone, glockenspiel, keyboard samplers, harps, piano, and myriad drums, gongs, and bells, to say nothing of winds, brass, and strings — the instrument that came out on top was the human voice, both in person and impersonated.

The in-person voices appeared in Prokofiev’s Alexander Nevsky cantata; the impersonated ones in the “Prelude and Liebestod” from Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde. The utterly nonvocal electric violin took center stage in John Adams’s The Dharma at Big Sur.

Let us begin at the end, a thrilling, blood-quickening and triumphant rendition of the 13th-century Russian prince Alexander Nevsky entering into Pskov after defeating a thundering horde of German knights on a frozen lake. The massive Sonoma State Chorus, supplemented by other local choirs, sang (in Russian), “Russia marched out to mighty battle, Russia overcame the enemy ... Whoever invades, will be killed.” Their diction was precise, their words fully intelligible, their delivery superb. They soared above the mighty orchestral forces assembled below and stole the show.

And what a show it was. Alexander Nevsky, composed in 1938, is one of the great film scores, and its narrative drive is fully evident even without its visual counterpart. Conductor Bruno Ferrandis, returning after the lengthy search for his replacement (Francesco Lecce-Chong), turned up the momentum and moved the score briskly forward. The opening section, “Russia beneath the yoke of the Moguls,” was suitably eerie and oppressive, with a four-octave, two-note chord setting the mood.

The choir’s entry in the subsequent “Song of Alexander Nevsky” was strong and precise. The basses rang out, and the sound filled the hall. The song’s final refrain — “Whoever invades Russia, shall be killed” — drove home the cantata and film’s obvious purpose of rousing the Russian citizenry against the Nazis. As the story moved forward, the chorus kept returning to that invocation, singing “Arise, people of Russia,” “Let the enemy perish,” and other phrases of that ilk, always with power and conviction.

Meanwhile, the orchestra kept up a furious pace, with standout performances by the brass and memorable sounds from the strings. The famous “Battle on the Ice” was played at a fever pitch, with the string, brass, winds, and percussion sections trading phrases with machine-gun rapidity. Ferrandis was as invigorating as ever, jumping around on the podium and swooping his arms like a raptor in flight.

The only disappointment was the solo by mezzo-soprano Jacalyn Kreitzer, who buried herself in the orchestra instead of striding forward on the stage. The solo has a very low range and it didn’t ring out, although her tone was often lovely.

The musician who did ring out, with the help of plentiful amplification, was the electric-violin soloist, Tracy Silverman, who appeared earlier in The Dharma at Big Sur. His instrument sported two additional strings below the low G (lower C and lowest F), a bevy of pickups near the tail, and no acoustic properties. All the sound came out of two speakers on the ground behind him.

Amplified instruments conquered pop music long ago, but in the acoustic context of the concert hall, it’s hard to understand their appeal. The sound is unrelentingly harsh and devoid of subtlety, and the upper registers grate on the ears. Thankfully, Silverman did not play his violin at top volume, but he had the potential to drown everybody out.

In contrast to the overbearing violin sound, John Adams’s music was delightful, with shimmering orchestral textures and complex syncopations that sustained interest. For all the intricacy of the orchestral line, however, it mainly functioned as a drone for Silverman’s peregrinations. He displayed excellent technique and strong bowing, but he was often out of tune in the upper reaches of his instrument.

Silverman, who wowed the audience, was more convincing in his encore, a piece by rock legend Carlos Santana. Here Silverman displayed more flexibility and rhythmic intensity, but he diminished the performance by recording what he was playing and then using the recording as background for further improvisations. It was technically impressive, but it felt like a parlor trick.

The concert opener, on the other hand, was a convincing display of lush acoustics supplemented only by the instruments’ own resonant overtones. Tristan and Isolde is about as romantic and tragic as music gets, and Ferrandis evoked both qualities to the hilt. The beginning in the low strings was wonderfully hushed, and the echoing winds were a perfect rejoinder. What was most impressive, however, was the ever-so-gradual crescendo from the haunting opening to the first climactic moment, followed by a long decrescendo and another rise and fall as Tristan dies in Isolde’s arms. You could almost hear them singing.

April 9, 2018: "Ode to California" - Ferrandis leads the Santa Rosa Symphony

By: Adam Broner, April 9, 2018 - Piedmont Post

Luminous and thoughtful.
For the past eleven years Bruno Ferrandis has led the Santa Rosa Symphony with skill and balance. After this season he is stepping down to return to his home in France. I was able to see him last weekend in a program titled “Ode to California” in the lively acoustics of Weill Hall at Sonoma State, and enjoyed his genius for programming and the wordless way that he communicated his insights into the music.

This has been a busy year for North Bay patrons, as five contenders had try-outs with the Symphony in a bid to be the next Conductor, each with thoughtful programs. On March 29 the board and musicians unanimously chose the new conductor, Francesco Lecce-Chong, currently the conductor of the Eugene Symphony and associate conductor of the Pittsburgh Orchestra, and he will be transitioning into his new job here by leading three concerts next season and six of the seven classical concerts the following year.

While I am looking forward to this rising star, I was keen to hear Ferrandis in one of his last appearances (he conducts one more set of concerts, May 5, 6 and 7), and on Sunday, April 8, his “Ode” delivered.

They began with Richard Wagner’s Prelude and Liebestod, the musical condensing of the opening and closing of his opera, Tristan und Isolde. The orchestra infused it with much of the drama and magic of the two-and-a-half hour opera, but in just twenty minutes, a win-win for players and patrons alike. That drama included the famously unresolved progressions of the opera, which flowed from question to question to create its own haunting picture of unrequited love, and then finally resolved at the very end with the “Liebestod,” literally the “love-death.” You have to hand it to the German language, which can romanticize a word out of “love” and “death” not unlike our blasé American “murder-suicide” or “lover’s leap.”

But aside from the twisted premise (which is sort of normal for opera), the music was divine. Ferrandis led the Santa Rosa Symphony in a stirring performance from the first soft hesitant twitters to huge gushing phrases, and with a pause that stretched almost to the point of discomfort.
That was just a warm-up for the blazing electric violin of Tracy Silverman, who was the soloist in John Adams’ The Dharma at Big Sur. And in fact, Adams wrote that piece for Silverman in 2003 for the opening of the LA Philharmonic’s new Disney Hall, and it was also appropriately an homage to two great California composers, Lou Harrison and Terry Riley.
Although the structure of the piece paralleled the Wagner in its slow build-up of washes and powerhouse apotheosis, this was a joyous celebration of life devoid of Romantic yearning. Tuned partly in just intonation, we came away with an expansive Pacific Rim sensibility that evoked Harrison’s gamelons and the sliding sonorities of Riley’s South Indian ragas. Here two harps and pianist Kymry Esainko spattered rhythmic counter-attacks to the violin’s long phrases, while a bevy of percussionists (including our own Ward Spangler and Kevin Neuhoff who perform with the Berkeley Symphony) delivered a backbone of vibes and timpani.

Silverman, who was an early member of the famed crossover Turtle Island Quartet, came back for an encore that was expressive and improvised, showing us the startling capabilities of his six-stringed electric instrument. Based on Carlos Santana’s “Europa,” Silverman created runs that were fearsome and slippery over a rhythmic looping, and then turbo-charged it with dense electronic distortions and wailing top notes like Jimi Hendrix.

From the long applause that followed, one could hear that the Santa Rosa Symphony has strong support from an adventurous audience.

After intermission Ferrandis changed gears to Sergei Prokofiev’s Alexander Nevsky with the back of the stage filled with the Sonoma State University Chorus. This was a suite from the score that Prokofiev wrote for the movie directed by Eisenstein, originally used by Stalin to foster the patriotism he needed to break his treaty with Hitler and enter World War II. And to that end, we can hear Prokofiev’s use of village scales and the stirring phrases of youth, amid the deep cracking of ice and the sharp winds of the North.

The very first notes sketched out a broad canvas, with bone-jarring contra-bassoon and high keening violins playing in an ancient church modal scale. The seven movements of this cantata were deeply evocative, with torrid strings, stern trombones, and sharply dissonant cymbal, and the chorus was tight and excellent in its Russian diction. Ferrandis carefully conducted each phrase, and when they swelled and the brass came in, his long arms and large expressive hands slashed out gestures until I wondered if blood would spill.

Actually, it was probably democracy that was being sacrificed on this musical altar, but when they sang, “Arise, People of Russia,” I was ready to stand and cry “Da!” with the rest of them. Creepy and satisfying!

These are the long and thoughtful programs I have come to expect from Ferrandis, whose last concert here, “Au Revoir, Bruno,” includes Mahler’s stirring Symphony No. 9 and a World Premiere by Czech composer Michal Rataj.

The Santa Rosa Symphony performs those next concerts and bids adieu on May 5, 6 and 7 at Weill Hall on the campus of Sonoma State. See for tickets and program notes, along with exciting information about their new pick, Francesco Lecce-Chong.

February 13, 2018: Michael Christie Takes the Santa Rosa Symphony on an “All-American” Ride

By: Steve Osborn, February 13, 2018 - San Francisco Classical Voice

In these international times, what makes a piece of music American? For Michael Christie, the answer is that it needs to have at least premiered on these shores, if not been composed here. Thus the rationale for the “all-American” program that Christie — the fifth and final conducting candidate for the Santa Rosa Symphony — led on Saturday night at the Green Music Center.

The opening work, Leonard Bernstein’s suite from On the Waterfront, is truly American, and the closing, Dvořák’s “New World” symphony, is arguably so. But the centerpiece, Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto, stakes its claim to Americana by having been first performed in Chicago, even though it was composed in France. That seems a little thin until you realize that the final movement is infused with a yearning melody that sounds for all the world like an American parlor song.

Christie, himself an all-American from Buffalo, is an elegant conductor with balletic arm movements and a firm grasp of rhythm. He is at once restrained and expressive, an expert at using his undulating arms to lead the orchestra in thunderous crescendos and whispering diminuendos. His tempi are unflagging, and he always seems relaxed, even serene. His style was uniformly consistent, from the plangent opening of On the Waterfront to the glittering finale of “From the New World.”

On the Waterfront opened with a heartfelt French horn solo from Alex Camphouse, followed by a saxophone riff and then the full sound of the orchestra urged on by Christie. He altered moods and dynamics with ease, his supple arms changing course in midstream as if unaware of the laws of physics. At times his motions were so languid that he seemed to be moving through viscous air.

The orchestra played quite well, and their solos were superb, especially the off-stage reprise of the opening passage for French horn. In the movie, Marlon Brando famously claimed that he could have been a contender; but with Christie there was never any doubt.

After vigorous applause, the attention shifted to piano soloist Anna Fedorova, who glided onstage in a gossamer turquoise gown with a glittering multicolored top. Flinging back her lengthy brown hair, she plunged down to the keyboard — and was instantly drowned out by the orchestra. Despite the balance problems, which were finally solved in the third movement, Fedorova displayed impressive command of her instrument, wriggling through Prokofiev’s demanding score with nary a scratch. The memorable opening theme, taken at a sprint, was both fiery and compelling.

Fedorova is not a particularly demonstrative performer. She spent most of her time staring intently at the keyboard, her head often obscured by her hair. This introverted style worked well in the tricky passages, but it proved a barrier in the slower parts, particularly the second movement. Notes that should have rung out felt muted, and excessive pedaling muddied the sound.

Fortunately, both imbalance and introversion fell away in the Allegro con fuoco final movement. Christie toned down the orchestral volume and Fedorova emerged from her shell. She took it easy on the pedal and became much more expressive, with spellbinding trills and varied attacks. Changing abruptly to play the melancholic parlor tune at the heart of the movement, Fedorova kept driving forward to the furious ending, prompting a standing ovation.

Christie offered an alternative to the usual intermission by interviewing Fedorova onstage after the performance. They engaged in the usual musical pleasantries, but a question from the audience prompted the revelation that they had met for the first time on Thursday and had only practiced the concerto for a few hours, sandwiched around a recital by Fedorova on Friday night. Perhaps they could have fixed the balance problems if they’d had more time.

The “New World” is performed so often that previous performances are still ringing in your ears each time you hear it anew. This remembrance can be a danger for conductors seeking to put their own stamp on Dvořák’s venerable masterpiece, but Christie seemed undaunted by the risk.

Christie’s fluidity on the podium dominated the performance. His motions were precise and elegant, and the sound he elicited was solid and unified, most notably among the strings. Their bows moved uniformly as they ranged from silken tones to crisp arpeggios.

The unanimity of sound was nowhere more evident than in the unhurried second movement, which opened with a gorgeous English horn solo from Jesse Barrett. The subsequent playing was hushed and ethereal as the glorious melody flowed throughout the orchestra. The pace from Christie was slow, but the ensemble held steady all the way through a tremendous swell near the end.

Oddly, the English horn sat silent for the rest of the symphony, the only static element in a bursting onrush of sound. The third movement was sprightly, and the rapid fourth was driven by strong and heraldic brass. Christie was fun to watch as he summoned crescendo after crescendo in a whirlwind of orchestral interplay. The ovation at the end was heartfelt and sustained. 

February 11, 2018: Santa Rosa Symphony conductor candidate Michael Christie puts spotlight on musicians

By: Diane Peterson , February 11, 2018 - The Press Democrat

The Santa Rosa Symphony on Saturday night showcased inspired players, a sparkling piano soloist and a sensitive, empathetic conductor – Michael Christie, the fifth and final music director candidate to audition to succeed Bruno Ferrandis – but the true stars of the concert at the Green Music Center were the bustling cities and wide open prairies of America itself.

Opening with Leonard Bernstein’s tense and lyrical “On the Waterfront” Symphonic Suite and culminating with Dvorak’s bittersweet Symphony No. 9, “From the New World,” the Americana theme was writ large by Christie, who last led the symphony here in January 2015, also in an American program of works by composers Aaron Copland and Mark O’Connor.

Conducting with restraint and precision, Christie captured the American spirit — its determination, resourcefulness and optimism — with a steady rhythmic pulse. There were not a lot of extraneous gestures and scant facial expressions, but his body language communicated the feeling and the pulse (he often suggested the subdivided beats within a beat) loud and clear. And while his dynamics and tempos provided exciting contrasts, the music always sounded like it was speaking for itself, never reaching for the easy or overly dramatic.

One audience member commented that for the first time this season, he found his eyes riveted on the musicians rather than the conductor, perhaps pointing to a penchant for a democratic approach. Christie also seems to have a knack for making familiar works sound fresh by giving them new context.

There is perhaps no symphony more familiar than Dvorak’s No. 9, inspired by the “wide open spaces” of America as well as Dvorak’s intense nostalgic for his Czech homeland.

Under Christie, the beloved work had a relaxed, open feeling, evoking the waves of grain, the majestic mountains and the stolid strength of the American continent. From the start, the plodding tempo and hushed dynamics allowed the music to breathe. The string and woodwind sections seemed to be feeling rather than just playing the music and could take their time to polish their tone, shape their phrases and wring all the tender emotion out of the melodies. And, of course, there was a solid contingent of powerful brass to fire up the excitement at the climactic moments.
In the beloved second movement, it took a few seconds for the English horn to settle into the relaxed tempo. But once he did, there were few dry eyes in the house. This melody, inspired by a song written by a student of Dvorak’s (“Goin’ Home”), has an intensely spiritual quality that paired well with the Shaker simplicity of the hall.

The energy ratcheted up in the third movement, a whirling Czech dance, and continued through the stirring fourth movement, which Christie led with a bit more expression and passion but a steady hand on the baton.

Before the curtain-opener by Bernstein, the 43-year-old conductor introduced himself and the American framework of the program briefly, then let the solo French horn set the bittersweet tone of the dark, disconcerting “On the Waterfront.” This searing solo dissolved as the timpani blasted off to dramatize the violent waterfront of the docks of post-war Hoboken, New Jersey.

The percussion cut-offs were crisp, and the saxophone solo was at turns sexy, gritty and bold during this scrappy opening, which gave way to tender lyricism in the flute and strings echoing the love story of Bernstein’s better-known “West Side Story.”

Fans of Bernstein and Elia Kazan’s 1954 film starring Marlon Brando could not help but enjoy this jazzy, Gershwin-esque work of extremes, which captures both the plangent urgency and lyrical sweetness of the American sound.

In the showcase spot before intermission, young, Ukrainian pianist Anna Fedovora plunged into Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3 with nerves of steel, hardly breaking a sweat as she galloped up and down the keyboard through the ubiquitous arpeggios and chords.

Her playing was sinuous and silky, with each note and phrase connected and moving in a certain direction. Led by Christie, the orchestra accompaniment was tight, staying ahead of the beat at times to emphasis the sardonic passages. In the eerie, otherworldly second movement, there were lovely spaces between the notes, making the music seem more alive and drawing in listeners even more.

Christie, who has a good sense of humor in person, appears very serious onstage, and one might be tempted to say he borders on boring, or at the very least, lacks a bit of pizazz.

But he was refreshingly candid and brisk in his Q&A with the soloist during intermission, sharing the world of the touring concert pianist and guest conductor with honesty and no pretensions.

As Ferrandis pulls down the curtain on his tenure here during the last two concerts of the season, the French conductor is opening a door for the orchestra and its fans to step through and create a new vision of their future.

The five candidates given the chance to fill his shoes come from a wide range of conducting styles, ages, countries and personality types. Do we want youthful energy or time-tested experience? A strict, musical taskmaster or an audience charmer? A restrained introvert or a sweaty, passionate extrovert?

Stay tuned. We’ll all know the answer next month, when the symphony board announces its decision based on input from audience, musicians and staff. It truly will be a new world then.
The Santa Rosa Symphony will repeat this program at 8 p.m. tonight at the Green Music Center’s Weill Hall.

You can reach Staff Writer Diane Peterson at 707-521-5287 or On Twitter @dianepete56.

January 16, 2018: Rising from the ashes - a Santa Rosa symphonic renaissance

By: Paul Hertelendy, January 16, 2018 - ARTSSF

A brave guest conductor indeed, the visitor who introduces Bartok with a 12-minute illustrated lecture.

But the English conductor Graeme Jenkins got away with it and had the Santa Rosa Symphony crowd firmly in his corner for a modern masterpiece, Bartok’s “Concerto for Orchestra” (1943).

Along the way, putting away his baton, he had led articulate readings of Haydn and Mozart. The evening as a whole was rousing—far more an experience than a concert.

Clearly the night’s focus Jan. 13 was on the Bartok concerto. Jenkins cheekily gave his personal narrative interpretation in the piece, as Bartok left us none: The first three movements referred vividly to World War Two, its despair, its horrors. The 4th was nostalgia for Bartok’s prewar Hungary. And the 5th was a beacon of hope and renaissance.

While Jenkins’ impact was considerable in defusing a less familiar piece, his views are debatable, e.g., most analysts take Bartok’s musical quote from Shostakovich not as nostalgia but as a deliberate burlesque of a resented Soviet composer.

What was certain were the quotations of numerous themes from Bartok’s homeland, both folk and urbane, particularly the tune from the popular musical “Beautiful Hungary,” introduced by the splendid viola section. If that isn’t nostalgia for a refugee composer, what is?

Save a few of your exclamation points for the night’s Israeli pianist, Orli Shaham (sister of Gil S., and wife of fast-rising conductor David Robertson). Her play in Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21 (“Elvira Madigan”) was clean, nuanced and refreshing. Long after the “Madigan” movie has faded into oblivion, Mozart’s slow movement—one of the most ethereal ever—keeps it alive. Ms. Shaham watched the conductor like a hawk, held to the tempo, and brought a welcome attention to subtle dynamic shading. If her cadenza (solo) was grandiose, the rest was unassailable. She has the gift of making the piano sing.

The kettle drums were much smaller than usual here, encountered more in baroque music. Similar to practice in period-instruments ensembles, they were struck by Andrew Lewis with a hard stick. Just like the old days.

The concert began with Haydn’s “Military” Symphony No. 100, notable for a “Turkish” effect of cymbals and triangle, popular three centuries ago in Vienna. The performance was articulate, and Jenkins, better known as a choral conductor, amply showed his mettle in the symphonic realm, bolstered by the enviable Weill Hall acoustics.

Jenkins is one of five guest conductors this season as the SRS transitions from retiring Bruno Ferrandis to a new musical director.

PHOENIX RISING FROM THE ASHES—The Santa Rosa Symphony had gone through hell on earth with the nearby devastating wine-country wildfires that had forced cancelation of an Oct. concert (and its guest conductor) and postponed another, with inevitable personnel disruptions. The return to the SRS’ quality music-making in this its 90th anniversary is quite remarkable.

January 14, 2018: Santa Rosa Symphony conductor candidate leads with restraint

By: Steve Osborn, January 14, 2018 - The Press Democrat

For Graeme Jenkins, less is often more.

The fourth candidate to replace Bruno Ferrandis at the helm of the Santa Rosa Symphony was a model of restraint Saturday evening as he guided the ensemble through an invigorating Haydn symphony, a beloved Mozart concerto with pianist Orli Shaham and Bartók’s magnificent “Concerto for Orchestra.”

The English-born conductor was music director of the Dallas Opera from 1994-2013, has directed opera productions in the United Kingdom, Europe and the U.S., and conducted for major European orchestras.

On the podium, Jenkins, noted for his interpretations of Mozart, kept the orchestral volume down, allowing Shaham’s spirited and elegant performance of Mozart’s 21st piano concerto to resonate throughout the hall.

This continuity between orchestra and soloist came to the fore in the andante second movement. Shaham repeated the triplets with her left hand, allowing the melody to slowly emerge from her right. The effect was instantly ethereal, inducing a rapt silence from the audience. The mood quickly shifted in the vivace finale, where Jenkins set a blistering tempo. Nobody stumbled or slowed in a thrilling race to the finish.

The concert opened with Haydn’s playful Military Symphony, which seems to have been programmed as a contrast to the wartime background of the Bartók concerto in the second half.  Jenkins marched lightly through Haydn’s intricate score, eliciting impeccable and graceful playing from the musicians. The strings displayed remarkable unanimity, but the militaristic percussion stole the show. The sparkling finale had a relentless forward motion that led to strong applause.

After intermission, the orchestra became its own soloist in Bartók’s “Concerto for Orchestra,” which highlights every section of the ensemble over a five-movement span. Bartók wrote the concerto during 1943 in upstate New York, after fleeing his native Hungary to escape Nazi persecution.

Before the performance, Jenkins offered an illuminating introduction, complete with musical samples, about the genesis and narrative of the piece, which he believes depicts the Nazi invasion of Hungary and its bitter aftermath. Although many scholars dispute that interpretation, it served as a useful guide to the concerto’s dense complexity.

Jenkins let the music speak for itself. He coaxed a strong opening from the basses and cellos, followed by a scintillating crescendo and accelerando as the orchestra roared to life. As before, his conducting was steady and restrained, and he managed the perpetually shifting rhythms with ease. Principal oboist Laura Reynolds was outstanding in the first of many solos, as was the entire brass section.

The second movement features a series of duets, beginning with the bassoons. In the shimmering third movement, the focus shifted to the viola section, which played its elegiac theme with searing intensity.

The violas and oboes again took the lead in the fourth movement, featuring dazzling interplay between various sections of the orchestra.

Just as he had in the vivace finale of the Mozart concerto, Jenkins set a ferocious pace for the presto finale of the Bartók. This orchestral showpiece begins with a memorable fanfare from the trumpets, followed by an ornate fugue from the strings. Jenkins kept urging the orchestra to play faster, resulting in spine-tingling passages. The ending, with its eerie swooshing sounds and dense orchestration, was mesmerizing, and was followed by a sustained standing ovation.

January 14, 2018: Tryouts Continue at Santa Rosa Symphony; Jenkins Pleases Crowd with Bartok

By: Steve Mencher, January 14, 2018 - KRCB

Conductor Graeme Jenkins is on the short list of candidates to replace Santa Rosa Symphony music director Bruno Ferrandis. Jenkins led the orchestra in performances on Jan. 13-15, 2018.
The Santa Rosa Symphony continues its series of very public job interviews. This past weekend, Graeme Jenkins conducted the orchestra in performances of music by Haydn and Bartok, with pianist Orli Shaham joining the group in Mozart's Concert No. 21 in C major for Piano and Orchestra. Attendees received an email Tuesday asking them to rate the conductor's skills and rapport with the audience. He'll be compared to the previous three candidates, and the upcoming guest conductor Michael Christie, who arrives in February for a weekend.
Jenkins had the audience's attention immediately, as he dove into Haydn's Symphony No. 100 in G major. He drew warm, precise playing from the strings and seemed to enjoy the band's martial percussion flourishes in the second movement Allegretto. (The symphony is nicknamed "Military.")
The Mozart concerto showed Jenkins as a steady and inspired musical partner to Shaham, whose brother, violinist Gil Shaham, is perhaps a little better known. Her reputation as a Mozart specialist was on display as her crystaline and lucid touch drew a very Classical sound from the modern concert grand onstage. Mozart requires enormous precision, but that detailed playing shouldn't be at the expense of warmth. Shaham has all those bases covered and earned an enthusiastic standing ovation from the crowd.
After intermission, Graeme shifted to the role of music educator. He spoke engagingly about the themes of the Bartok Concerto for Orchestra, illustrating each passage musically, calling the soloists by name, and generally giving the audience a sense that if he is hired to lead the band, he'd be an approachable and informal "maestro" without any fuss or pretension.
Although the concert I attended took place on Martin Luther King's birthday holiday, the only nod to the occasion was a statement by Jenkins that "he has a dream" for the orchestra's excellence in "world class" Weill Hall at the Green Music Center. It wasn't exactly a false note, but it emphasized the apparent lack of diversity in the orchestra and the audience. These are issues that any new conductor will undoubtedly address in time.
The actual performance of the Bartok delivered on Jenkins' promise. It was an intelligent and emotional ride through the composer's late in life homage to his native Hungary. The audience once again awarded a standing ovation, and made it clear that Jenkins is a strong contender for the important job of leading Santa Rosa's orchestra into its next chapter.

Steve Mencher was a radio producer at Carnegie Hall and worked for NPR'sPerformance Today music program. He's currently news director of KRCB.

December 6, 2017: Choices, choices: a job interview in the North Bay

By: , December 6, 2017 - Adam Broner, Piedmont Post

The Santa Rosa Symphony is in the middle of an exciting journey as they change artistic directors. Bruno Ferrandis, their beloved conductor, is stepping down and returning to France after eleven years at the helm. He balanced an electric tautness with depth of feeling, and the orchestra will surely miss him. But this year Sonoma audiences get to hear five different conductors strut their stuff, and they are even encouraged to offer their comments to the hiring committee.
On Monday, Dec. 4, I heard the third of the five candidates, Andrew Grams, in a program titled  “A Luscious Euro Sound.” Built around Ravel’s playful Piano Concerto in G Major, this was a program of contrasts.
The Santa Rosa Symphony is in the middle of an exciting journey as they change artistic directors. Bruno Ferrandis, their beloved conductor, is stepping down and returning to France after eleven years at the helm. He balanced an electric tautness with depth of feeling, and the orchestra will surely miss him. But this year Sonoma audiences get to hear five different conductors strut their stuff, and they are even encouraged to offer their comments to the hiring committee.
On Monday, Dec. 4, I heard the third of the five candidates, Andrew Grams, in a program titled  “A Luscious Euro Sound.” Built around Ravel’s playful Piano Concerto in G Major, this was a program of contrasts.
KA: I believe that the Santa Rosa Symphony is the heart and soul of this community. What can you say about this?
AG: Music is the medium by which we come together. It is the opposite of race and religion. It is a force for bringing people together into meaningful dialogue.

KA: You travel a lot. Moving to Sonoma County is not in your plans, right?
AG: I have a “residence” outside of Cleveland, where I live about two months a year with my love, who plays with the Cleveland Orchestra. And then I guest conduct a lot. If I get this job I will cut down a lot on my guest conducting. Think of it like dating: you go out a couple of times and then you think, It’s fun. But do I need it? So I’ll cut down on some of that…And this conductor search is like speed dating.

KA: [laughs] Yes, it is like speed dating. But we’re not looking for one night stands!
Grams answered smoothly, talking about sharing what he loved with the musicians and community. But I don’t think he was expecting that sweetly smiling musicologist to have such a wicked thrust.
And then on to the tryout! They opened with Hector Berlioz’ King Lear Overture. This was not the mature Berlioz that we know from Symphonie Fantastique, with his command of orchestration and color and smooth transitions. This was the young Berlioz, rough and rocky and fresh from being jilted by the woman he hoped to wed. It may not have been smooth, but in this homage to Shakespeare’s Lear we could hear a King’s madness echoed by a young man’s descent into insane passions.
Grams spoke about the work first, telling us that Berlioz had actually planned to dress as a chambermaid and poison his intended and her mother (who had halted the engagement) and himself, and was traveling from Rome when he stopped in Nice and encountered the Shakespeare play. He managed to regain enough sanity to write this concerto.
Despite the fascinating back story, this was not as successful as it could have been. Perhaps Grams was trying too hard, varying the tempo too often and stopping for long moments before springing back into action. The strings were right with him on those pauses, and started up instantly together. But the horns were ragged, since he didn’t know to telegraph his down beat for them. You just can’t do that to a horn player! They need to know where the beat is going to be, so they can get their mouths puckered down and begin compressing a column of air.
In that moment I knew his violin training was actually interfering with his rapport with the brass.
But then they came powerfully together in Maurice Ravel’s Concerto in G major for Piano and Orchestra, with a dynamic performance by young piano sensation Stewart Goodyear.
This was all that the audience could have wished for, with sparkling runs and deep melancholy and lots and lots of Euro-jazz! But here Grams’ job was more direct: he had to follow the soloist faithfully or court instant disaster. No sweeping gestures, no grand pauses. This was that supreme tightrope act that conductors have to do, supporting the soloist’s interpretation of the composer and his rapport with the orchestra.
And the older Ravel was a force of nature, with whole tones mixing it up with blue notes and explosive runs turning to reveries. Goodyear was slow and tragic in the middle movement, and the excellent program notes by Steven Ledbetter described how Ravel “found it necessary to write the Adagio assaione or two measures at a time.”
Along with the full-court piano runs, the orchestra was at the top of its form. The brass were magically tight, the flutes glittered like precious stones, and the harp mirrored piano to create a sense of unearthly distance.
After intermission, the orchestra tried to show its mettle in Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances, and it was clear that these musicians were solid. But again there were problems getting the work to gel into clarity. The patron seated next to me leaned over and whispered, “Grams looks like he’s dancing.” She didn’t seem to approve of his sways and round gestures, and I think the brass were having trouble finding the center of his beat.
I tried to think how Rachmaninoff would have conducted his own work of lush chords and bright edges. Stravinsky called him “a six-foot-six-inch scowl.” He would have stood ramrod straight and conducted incisively, and the musicians would have sounded sublime.
Last month Mei-Ann Chen had her tryout, and I read that both audience and musicians connected strongly to her. That program included a brilliant work by contemporary American composer Jennifer Higdon, and I’m sorry that I missed it. But we still have two more excellent candidates, and I’m all ready for “speed dating.”
For complete information on these concerts and on this exciting search for a conductor see

December 5, 2017: Andrew Grams finds his groove with the Santa Rosa Symphony in Rachmaninoff

By: , December 5, 2017 - Steve Osborn, San Francisco Classical Voice

Last Sunday’s Santa Rosa Symphony concert featured two elegant and refined guests: music director candidate Andrew Grams and pianist Stewart Goodyear. Both displayed dazzling technique and consummate artistry, but Goodyear was the more consistent of the two.

Some of Grams’s inconsistency may have stemmed from his chosen repertoire. According to Symphony staff, each of the conductor candidates (Grams is the third of five) chooses his or her own repertoire, with the exception of the piano concerto. The only requirement is that at least one of the pieces needs to be “modern,” i.e., written after 1900. The previous two candidates chose works written within the last 20 years, but Grams played it safe by selecting Rachmaninoff's Symphonic Dances, which hails from 1940 but is unabashedly Romantic. Grams’ other selections were Berlioz’s rarely performed King Lear overture and an orchestrated version of Debussy’s piano classic, “Clair de Lune.”

The choice of the King Lear overture was particularly unfortunate. In introducing the piece, Grams said that it “gets programmed rarely — and you’re about to find out why.” And indeed, there isn’t much to it. Grams asserted that the music “sounds like it would be from a mad king,” but to contemporary ears, it sounds pretty tame, almost like a Rossini overture. The musicians played well, and Grams conducted solidly, but there was no kindling to ignite.

In contrast, the subsequent Ravel concerto (the one for two hands) was crackling within seconds. Goodyear is a self-effacing pianist who plays it straight, but the sounds coming from his fingers are incendiary. His technique is dazzling, his rhythmic sense is infallible, and the speed with which he traverses the fingerboard is astonishing.

The first movement of Ravel’s concerto sounds like a French version of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, with some nearly identical phrases. Goodyear slid right into his part, balancing well with the orchestra while bringing out the syncopation. He likewise eased into the second movement, playing his simple but evocative part with great sensitivity. His playing was so peaceful and tranquil that it got everyone’s attention, and a sustained hush descended on the audience.

Goodyear broke the silence with a relentless perpetuum mobile in the Vivace finale. He played with tremendous energy, but was always in control and delightfully expressive. Grams and the orchestra matched him note for note, including a torrid bassoon solo.

After intermission, the attention was once again on Grams, who had arranged the orchestra in a somewhat unusual pattern of first violins, cellos, and basses on stage right, with violas and second violins on stage left. The arrangement gave the orchestra a deeper sound, but it was often difficult to hear the violas.

The Symphonic Dances is one of Rachmaninoff’s best works and it’s hard to forget. The driving rhythms and descending triplets in the opening bars become etched in the brain as Rachmaninoff restates, develops, and expands upon them. Grams was precise in cueing entrances, and he paced the first movement exquisitely, the gradual build-up at the outset resolving into a thundering fortissimo.

Grams’s beat is easy to follow. His left and right hands function independently, allowing him to add expressive effects with his left. He used every square inch of the podium as he addressed the different sections of the orchestra.

Despite all that, Grams’s head often seemed to be buried in his score, detracting from full engagement with the orchestra. All the tempi and dynamics were there, but there were few sparks and not much forward momentum.

Thankfully, momentum arrived in the finale. Here Rachmaninoff displays his skill as an orchestrator, and the musicians proved equal to the task, negotiating the tricky rhythms and rapidly changing instrumentation with ease. Grams led them flawlessly and spiritedly.

Another odd repertoire choice ended the concert as a kind of encore: André Caplet’s orchestration of Debussy’s beloved piano piece, “Clair de Lune” (Moonlight). Here Grams was in his wheelhouse, evoking lush sound from the orchestra with grace and confidence.

December 4, 2017: Santa Rosa Symphony conductor candidate presents eloquent program

By: , December 4, 2017 - Diane Peterson, The Press Democrat

The Santa Rosa Symphony under music director candidate Andrew Grams presented a program of lush European works Saturday night at Weill Hall that created a kaleidoscope of orchestral color as bright as the holiday lights shining on the hall.

The concert, which replaced December’s traditional choral program, offered two Romantic works by Rachmaninoff and Berlioz, and two French works by Ravel and Debussy. The clarity and simplicity of the French works were particularly well-suited to Grams’ restrained and elegant conducting style.

An agile presence on the podium, Grams conducts with a blend of precision and fluidity, bringing out the eloquence of the music while keeping a steady hand on the rhythmic groove. Clearly he is a musician’s musician, and his hands tell a story that is as fascinating to watch as it is to hear.

Demonstrating tight ensemble, the orchestra seemed to be with him through every measure and note, playing with bravado and tonal luster.

To that end, perhaps, the orchestra’s layout had been tweaked, with the cellos adjacent to the first violins on stage right and the basses behind them. The second violins sat directly across from the firsts, with the violas inside on stage left, with the harp and piano behind them.

This game of musical chairs, according to one musician, allowed each section to hear each other better — a key element for being able to play together.

The highlight of the evening came after intermission with Rachmaninoff’s “Symphonic Dances,” a three-part suite that stomps and waltzes its way through lyrical melodies and an uproarious riot of sound. The last major work the Russian composer lived to complete, the dances weave together feelings of joy and despair as the dour Russian — one of the great masters of melody — knew he was approaching death.

Last performed in 2007 under Music Conductor Bruno Ferrandis, the lively first movement Saturday featured a sinuous saxophone solo by Jordan Wardlaw, son of long-time symphony clarinetist Mark Wardlaw (who was working another gig). The twirling solo by concertmaster Joseph Edelberg in the troubled waltz of the second movement also sounded wonderful.

But the orchestra really hit its stride in the third movement, a Spanish-like dance combining a vibrant array of lush strings, sighing woodwinds, blaring brass and percussion, whirling its way like a cyclone to the exciting finale.

Before intermission, the guest soloist — Canadian pianist Stewart Goodyear, a graduate of the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia — attacked the piano keys in Ravel’s Concerto in G major in a manner alternately intense, fiery and lyrical, all in the right places.

The quick tempo and rhythmic vitality of the first movement made the Gershwin-inspired music sound new again, and Goodyear demonstrated a lovely, deft touch in the Mozartean second movement, using whispered dynamics and tempo rubato to weave a magical spell. All of the woodwind solos were delicious.

Grams, who conducted the slow movement without a baton, picked it up again for the brief but rambunctious third movement, which had even orchestra musicians bobbing their heads.

The program opened with Berlioz’s Le Roi Lear (King Lear) Grande Ouverture, which Grams introduced with a funny story about the composer’s ill-fated engagement to a woman who, in his absence in Rome, married someone else.

The work, which doesn’t get played very often, was not as wild and crazy as Grams warned, but it did offer a taste of the kind of programming diversity he might offer were he to come here.
The conductor, who addressed the audience casually throughout the concert, concluded with another rarely heard orchestral work: an arrangement of Debussy’s beloved “Clair de lune” piano piece.

Was it a fairly standard lineup? You could argue that, but Grams provided a program whose sum that was greater than its parts, and the orchestra sounded terrific.

Staff writer Diane Peterson can be reached at 707-521-5287

November 6, 2017: Chen navigates her way through “journey” with Santa Rosa Symphony

By: Diane Peterson, November 6, 2017 - The Press Democrat

With music director candidate Mei-Ann Chen at the helm, the Santa Rosa Symphony whisked the audience o on an exotic voyage Saturday at Weill Hall to destinations ranging from Russia and Italy to a glass cathedral in the sky.

The evening seemed to y by as the spirited Chen — the second of five finalists to try out with the orchestra this season to succeed Bruno Ferrandis — proved her prowess as a navigator. Chen cut a crisp and elegant figure on the podium, dressed in a long black jacket and pants. Her controlled yet fluid conducting style combined clear cues and beats with sweeping, circular gestures reminiscent of the great maestro Seiji Ozawa.

After being introduced by Board Chair Jamei Haswell, who lost her home in the October wildfires, Chen launched the musical journey with a cheerful 1954 work, “Festive Overture” by Shostakovich. This work expresses the freedom the composer feels of getting out from under Stalin’s boots.

After the short work, Chen spoke to the audience about the program’s emotional journey, from the exuberance of Mendelssohn’s “Italian” Symphony No. 4 to the life-arming “blue cathedral” of Jennifer Higdon and the heartwarming melodies of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1.

The troubled life of Tchaikovsky, she noted, proves that “something tragic can lead to something beautiful.” Then she urged audience members to give their neighbors a hug.

“Love is the foundation of any rebuilding,” she said. “Let’s rebuild together.”

The Tchaikovsky concerto in B-at minor may sound trite to some — its opening melody is so well known that even those who have never heard a note of classical music can hum it — but the rendition by Armenian pianist Nareh Arghamanyan was anything but.

Wringing all the emotion out of the virtuoso work, Arghamanyan strode through the massive chords of the opening, then delivered each phrase with eloquence and clarity. The woodwind soloists shone in both the first movement and the enchanting second movement, where the strings provided interesting timbres during the pizzicato and muted sections. Chen kept dynamics balanced, but the ensemble seemed to be a bit ragged at times. The pianist plunged into the finale at a brisk pace, then Chen drove it home with an exhilarating accelerando at the end. Like a ride on the Orient Express and the composer himself, this sumptuous work carries Western tradition into the East.

After an enthusiastic standing ovation, Arghamanyan dedicated her encore — the melancholic “October” from Tchaikovsky’s “The Seasons” — to the victims of the wildfires.

The second half opened with Higdon’s airy “blue cathedral,” composed as a cathartic tribute to her younger brother, who died in 1998. Since its premiere in 2000, it has become Higdon’s most popular work.

The short, accessible piece opens with the percussion section on triangle, glockenspiel and other tinkling instruments. Then strings and winds enter, evoking an open, Coplandesque soundscape. The music slides upward as the listener enters a glass cathedral in the sky and is swept ever upward, then ends with a big, brass fanfare, dissolving slowly into the ringing of Chinese hand bells and crystal glasses. Like a backpacking trek into the mountains, this piece goes up but we’re not sure if it ever makes it back.

Bringing the audience down to earth, Chen landed the concert smoothly with Mendelssohn’s sunny Symphony No. 4, conducting from memory and sculpting the sound with her hands. The passionate first movement drew applause, but the orchestra really hit its groove in the graceful third and dancing fourth movements.

Like a Lamborghini, the musicians hugged the winding curves of the intricate score with fearless abandon. 

October 8, 2017: Santa Rosa Symphony conductor candidate creates synergy

By: DIane Peterson, , October 8, 2017 - The Press Democrat

The Santa Rosa Symphony and music director candidate Francesco Lecce-Chong created an exciting synergy Saturday night at the Green Music Center as the orchestra launched its 90th anniversary season with the first of five tryouts for a new artistic leader.

It didn’t go perfectly, but the surprises were all part of the charm.

Unable to curb its enthusiasm, the audience broke into unexpected applause after the first movement of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3, performed with a lovely, deft touch by Korean pianist Joyce Yang. About midway through the movement, the orchestra and soloist hit a rhythmic groove that was almost transcendent.

Singer-songwriter Tom Waits has described this feeling as a place where “there were no walls, there were no music stands, there weren’t even any instruments. There was no ceiling, there was no floor ... we all went out to the meadow.”

Throughout the evening, Lecce-Chong continued to make forays into the meadow, giving a clear, easy-to-follow beat for the curtain-opener by composer Mason Bates. His “Garages of the Valley,” which pays tribute to the high-tech inventors of San Jose, provided an accessible taste of contemporary music and a challenging warmup for the orchestra.

After the upbeat finale of the work, Lecce-Chong addressed the audience, expressing optimism about the future of classical music.

He found lots of connections in the Beethoven, most notably with Yang, with whom he has performed several times before, including at a gala concert last month for the Eugene Symphony in Eugene, Oregon, where Lecce-Chong is the music director.

Dressed in a long fuchsia gown, Yang married a formidable technique with rich expressiveness. She bent over the piano to generate a powerful sound throughout the concerto, which received a well-deserved standing ovation.

The five music director finalists are vying to succeed Bruno Ferrandis.

Chosen from among 60 applicants by a search committee of five symphony board members, four orchestra members and Alan Silow, the symphony’s executive director, each candidate will spent about eight days in Santa Rosa conducting rehearsals and performances and meeting with community leaders, board members, staff and musicians.

Mei-Ann Chen is the next candidate to tryout, from Nov. 4-6. A final decision is expected in March.

After Saturday night’s intermission, Lecce-Chong conducted the Tchaikovsky from memory, creating exciting accelerandos in the first movement and ramping up the energy with bold facial and left-hand gestures. He broke his baton at the end of the first movement, but playfully shrugged it off. Wrapping his hands around his chest while the oboe soloist launched into the opening of the Andantino by herself, he then conducted the sad, yet serene, movement with his hands.

After being presented with a new baton, Lecce-Chong ripped into the final two movements with frenzied passion, not bothering to tuck in an errant shirttail. Who cares what he looks like when he manages to become part of the orchestra and pull in the audience with him?

The Santa Rosa Symphony dedicated this concert set to principal bassist Randall Keith, who died Aug. 25 after 29 years with the orchestra.

Staff writer Diane Peterson can be reached at 707-521-5287 or On Twitter @dianepete56.

January 9, 2017: Symphonic splendor and harp viruosity at SRS concert

By: , January 9, 2017 - Terry McNeill, Classical Sonoma

A rainy winter Weill Hall audience of 800 heard the Santa Rosa Symphony Jan. 7 in an eclectic program of four composers including a provocative harp concerto. The music was preceded by manifold stage announcements and somber recognition of SRS musicians that had recently died. 

A rollicking performance of Rossini’s ‘Thieving Magpie” overture was a splendid opener, played at a quick tempo and spotlighting snare drum and dramatic percussion effects. All evening an eight-musician percussion section and superb wind playing were showcased by conductor Bruno Ferrandis, and the jaunty overture from 1819 had the requisite flash and verve. I am always struck with how starkly different Rossini’s music was in 1819, when juxtaposed with the prevailing Germanic style of Beethoven, Schubert and Weber 

French harpist Marie-Pierre Langlament was the soloist in the Ginastera Concerto, Op. 25, and the instrument brought on stage (hers?) was subtly amplified. The piece is awash in swirling sonic effects, handled with aplomb by Ms. Langlament who must have known the work from youth. Most performances I have heard have had solo playing that was aggressive and often rushed, but Ms. Langlament found elegance in the demanding samba-like rhythms and rapid phrases high in the treble. Nothing was forced or out of balance. 

In the lovely Molto Moderato there was fetching playing from the flute (Kathleen Reynolds), clarinet (Roy Zajac), oboe (Laura Reynolds) and bassoonist Carla Wilson, leading into an extended harp cadenza that was played with compelling virtuosity. The driving rhythms and sharp dynamic contrasts of the concluding Vivace were carefully controlled by the conductor and the sonorous excitement produced a standing ovation and two curtain calls. 

Returning to the stage after intermission for Debussy’s Danses Sacrée et Profane Ms. Langlament played a different harp, and took a few moments to touch up tuning. The ten-minute bucolic piece for strings was again played with the same secure control and authority that was heard in the Concerto, but with a lush and warm tone and seamless modulations. Mr. Ferrandis is at home with the music and crafted waltzes that were aristocratic as well as sensual. 

Ravel’s two big suites from Daphnis et Chloé closed the program in orchestral splendor, making full use of nine percussionists, two harps, xylophone, celesta and with a husky wind machine at the back of the stage. The Suites from the 1912 ballet are often presented with an off-stage choir singing haunting wordless expressions, but Mr. Ferrandis omitted this and the luxurious music had no need of the few seconds of faux artificial wind. 

There was nothing affected or omitted about the playing the first Suite, though after several faulty entrances the performance settled down and the conductor skillfully managed the many tempo changes and drew a reading that was at times white hot with excitement. The “Sunrise” opening in the second Suite was luminous, even without the choir, and the Symphony’s winds were stellar. Ms. Reynolds’ beguiling long solo was reminiscent of Vaughan William’s violin solo in the “Lark Ascending,” and Mr. Ferrandis acknowledged standout playing from Stacy Pelinka and Carmen Lemoine (flute and piccolo), Meredith Brown (horn) and trumpeters Scott Macomber and Kale Cumings. The wind playing mastery reached its zenith with a brilliant flute trio playing off the clarinet, bassoon and oboe lines in the Pantomine and Danse Générale sections. 

Clearly this was music in Mr. Ferrandis’ French “sweet spot” and his consummate and precision orchestral control was equaled only by his grand interpretative choices. 

Robert Hayden contributed to this review.

December 5, 2016: Poetic, but not really Poe-etic: "The Bells" sparks Santa Rosa Symphony program

By: , December 5, 2016 - Paul Hertelendy,

ROHNERT PARK, CA---To catch important musical works, it can take an hour’s drive out of an arts capital to reach them.

Credit the Santa Rosa Symphony and amalgamated choruses for bringing out that very eloquent but little-known choral symphony of Sergei Rachmaninoff, “The Bells,” given in the concerts of Dec. 3-5 here. The composer called it his number one achievement.

Coming from his palette in 1913, the 35-minute piece contains some of Rachmaninoff’s most skillful musical effects. If you only know the big three piano-cum-orchestra opuses, then, my friend, you don’t yet know Rachmaninoff the deft orchestrator, the master of rich romantic textures who could also produce consummate articulation in a diaphanous orchestra.

Like the composer’s life itself, “Bells” combines both Russian and American strains, using poetry of E.A. Poe. The piece is poetic, but not really Poe-etic. It’s a very free adaptation of Poe into Russian, then set to music, and now translated back into English in an even freer adaptation (Is that Mr. Poe himself we see, turning over in his grave?).

Its four movements present distinct themes, doled out to individual vocal soloists: childhood, wedding days, sheer horror (my favorite) and deathly doom-in-tomb. The finale contained the most memorable singing by far on opening night, with veteran operatic basso Philip Skinner and his fiery, booming voice in total command, as if prepping for Verdi’s “Requiem.”

Cuing his forces throughout, the wiry French Music director Bruno Ferrandis had clearly worked hard readying this rarity, and his orchestra did the rest. Though the audience reaction was tepid-to-polite, perhaps because the last movement is the most subtle and somber, the interpretation was exquisite, one of the best at the SRS.

Bells play little role in the music itself. Childhood is marked by silvery flute effects and a humming chorus, plus high (angelic?) female voices. The wedding section turns both sensual and tender, white the “horror” segment bristles with turbulence and dissonance. The chaos reflects souls in distress, as the chorus turns chromatic, and harp arpeggios emphasized the instability  of the infernal scene.

Effective and attractive instrumental solos peppered the program, coming from SRS principal players Roy Zajac, Meg Eldridge, Adelle-Akiko Kearns and Jesse Barrett.

While unusual, a choral symphony is not a new concept, used as format by Berlioz (“Romeo and Juliet”), Mahler (“Das Lied von der Erde”) and others.

Also featured was Elgar’s best and most played work, the “Enigma” Variations, that very durable mystery opus. It offers multiple mysteries which Elgar was not forthcoming to reveal. Why enigma? Who was the lady friend on an unmistakable sea voyage, in the variation ID’d as merely “***”? And what is the hidden principal theme which is never played (as he confessed), which no one can identify? (When asked if he’d reveal the theme, he always growled “Never!” implying it could be from the British song “Rule, Brittania.”)

Opening it all, a tone poem “Prayer Bells” by Augusta Read Thomas, 52. Full of rich sonorities, doleful horns and deep sounds, the ominous opus opens up to a full-throated “angry birds” orchestral finale. There were bells here, as elsewhere, but not much, to judge by involvement of the percussionist teetering atop a ladder hitting the tubular percussion.  

MUSIC NOTES---Ferrandis, who has audibly grown as an interpreter since arriving, will have logged an 11-year tenure as M.D. next summer. A replacement search will be underway next season, with five candidates.

SANTA ROSA SYMPHONY, with choruses, music of Rachmaninoff, Elgar, Thomas. Green Center, Sonoma State Univ., Dec. 3-5. For SRS info: (707) 546-8742, or go online.

December 4, 2016: Hear the tolling of the bells--iron bells!

By: , December 4, 2016 - Steve Osborn, Classical Sonoma

Thanks to the generosity of Don Green (as in Green Music Center), the Santa Rosa Symphony has for many years performed an annual choral program, usually during the holiday season. In keeping with this tradition, the orchestra and the SSU Symphonic Chorus featured Rachmaninoff’s choral symphony “The Bells” during their Dec. 3-5 concert set (I attended on Dec. 4). Rachmaninoff’s title suggests a festive work appropriate to the season, but the reality is that “The Bells” is a peculiarly Russian version of Edgar Allan Poe’s captivating but ultimately tragic poem, more suitable for mourning than merriment. 

The music of “The Bells” is among Rachmaninoff’s best, mixing equal parts of passion and invention. The third movement, “Alarm Bells,” is particularly stirring in its mixture of fortissimo choral lines, unusual orchestration and melodic fervor. Both choir and orchestra proved up to the task in this performance, with lines like “In a tuneless, jangling wrangling as they shriek, and shriek, and shriek” ringing forth with clear diction and enormous power. Maestro Bruno Ferrandis conducted with vigor, and the orchestra sustained the drama throughout. 

The other movements were less impressive, hampered by often inaudible soloists, imperfect balance and a strangely perverted translation and retranslation of Poe from English to Russian to English. Much is lost in transit, such as Poe’s insistent repetition of key words--bells, time, tinkle--and his rhythmic intensity. Captivating lines like “How they tinkle, tinkle, tinkle / In the icy air of night” are debased into “Rippling sounds of laughter falling / On the icy midnight air.” 

These textual difficulties were somewhat moot during the performance because the words were often hard to hear and nearly impossible to read in the darkness. Perhaps the powers that be could raise the auditorium lights slightly during vocal performances or even consider using supertitles, as in opera houses. 

Tenor soloist Christopher Bengochea sang with excellent diction, but his voice was somewhat dark, and his head was often buried in the score. Soprano Jenni Samuelson has a lovely voice, but her insistent vibrato sometimes overpowered the text; her performance was much better in Rachmaninoff’s wordless “Vocalise,” which ended the program. Baritone Philip Skinner was the most impressive soloist, enunciating his mournful lines with deep resonance. He was also the most engaged with the audience, rarely referring to his score. 

“The Bells” was actually the second bell-related piece on the program, which opened with a spirited performance of contemporary composer August Read Thomas’s “Prayer Bells.” Like many other modern compositions, the work is built around a single sustained note, or drone, heard in different octaves. The melodic material, such as it is, begins and ends on the drone, with no forward progression. Attention thus focuses on orchestral color and quality of sound, which was impressive; but the lack of forward motion was frustrating. 

The highlight of the concert was Elgar’s “Enigma Variations,” which earned a standing ovation before intermission from the packed house. The majestic ninth variation, “Nimrod,” is often played by itself, but it sounds even better when heard in the context of the 13 other variations on Elgar’s “Enigma” theme. 

Unlike purely musical variations, Elgar’s are based on the characteristics of individual people, with only distant references to the original theme. This change in basis, as it were, gives Elgar considerable freedom to depict each person’s foibles in sound. There is considerable variety to the variations, and the orchestration is consistently inventive and delightful. 

The symphony played with great confidence and gusto, easily switching from grim foreboding to fragile delicacy. The clarinet, viola and cello solos were outstanding, and Ferrandis’s conducting was both steady and fluid throughout. He would have done better to program the gloomy Rachmaninoff first and the shimmering Elgar last, so everyone could leave with a smile on their face instead of a furrowed brow.

November 8, 2016: Orion Weiss Takes Bartók at the Speed of Light

By: , November 8, 2016 - Steve Osborn, Classical Voice

Gifted pianists are everywhere these days, but few have the prodigious speed, stamina, and musicality of Orion Weiss. He exhibited all these qualities in a memorable rendition of Béla Bartók’s second piano concerto with the Santa Rosa Symphony on Nov. 6.

Weiss is a no-nonsense pianist. He seated himself at the piano, gathered his energies, and then launched full bore into the finger-crunching opening runs of the Bartók. He spent nearly all his time staring at his hands, as if guiding his fingers with his eyes rather than his arms. The speed of light seems like the most plausible explanation for the astonishing rapidity and precision of his attack. He was able to control the resonance of the piano with finger speed as much as pedal. In one soft passage, he achieved a haunting effect by striking the keys with so much speed that the notes died away as soon as they sounded.

The Bartók requires a considerable amount of fire from the soloist, an element that Weiss has in profusion. Although he was occasionally drowned out by the winds in the Allegro first movement, he flamed forth time and again, fully igniting near the end with an incredibly fast cadenza.

The entry of muted strings in the second movement brought an entirely new world of sound, to hypnotic and engaging effect. Weiss arose out of this background by producing tremendous volume from his instrument, accented by a beguiling duet with tympani. The tympani featured prominently in the final movement as well, along with a booming bass drum. Much of the movement is given over to a vigorous call-and-response between piano and orchestra. Weiss not only matched each orchestral outburst but kept raising the ante all the way to the transcendent conclusion.

The opener, Liszt’s symphonic poem Les Préludes, stood in pale contrast to Bartók’s masterpiece. Liszt’s orchestration is competent, but his melodies are insipid and his development evanescent. Nonetheless, the orchestra played flawlessly under conductor Bruno Ferrandis, with elegant solos from the French horn and oboe. After an interminable series of runs and arpeggios, the melodic material does coalesce near the end with a striking nine-note descending figure from the brass, impeccably executed by the orchestra’s trumpets and trombones.

Schumann’s second symphony, which occupied the latter part of the program, is a standard of the repertoire, and with good reason. Every movement has striking melodies and motifs, and they flow together with consummate grace. The orchestra played superbly, but special praise must be given to the string section, which negotiated Schumann’s roller-coaster runs with accuracy, unanimity and feeling. Nary a wrong note was to be heard.

In the first movement, Schumann uses a dizzying array of short motifs to build a central theme. Ferrandis brought out the abundant phrases and syncopations, nowhere more so than in an extended passage for strings and clarinet. The violins shone in the second movement, a playful Scherzo that requires nearly perpetual motion, capped off by a bracing sprint to the finish.

The players caught their breath in the subsequent Adagio, a subdued and calming interlude that invites rhythmic flexibility and heartfelt playing, which were everywhere in evidence. Most notable was the beautiful Bach-tinged fugue in the middle.

Ferrandis set a brisk tempo for the Allegro molto finale, resorting sometimes to compact angular motions instead of a more relaxed fluidity. However the beat was conveyed, the musicians kept up the pace while deftly handling repeated sforzandos and orchestral swells. Each idea led seamlessly into the next and propelled toward a triumphant ending — triumphant not only for Schumann, but also for Ferrandis and the Santa Rosa Symphony, which delivered an outstanding performance.

Steve Osborn, a medical writer and editor by day, moonlights as a violist, singer, and music critic.

November 8, 2016: (Untitled on Keyboard Brilliance)

By: , November 8, 2016 - Paul Hertelendy,

The centerpiece of the latest Santa Rosa Symphony program was one of Bela Bartok's thorniest works, the Piano Concerto No.2, with Music Director Bruno Ferrandis at the helm. Having just recently completed his 10th season here, the French conductor clearly does not shy away from challenging assignments.

The musicians brought off the work's many high-energy intricacies with the fast-flying, nimble pianist Orion Weiss.

Despite the considerable drive (nearly 100 mi. round trip from San Francisco), I relish my trips to the Santa Rosa area. Ferrandis is a meticulous figure leading a solid ensemble in a wood-lined modern hall that is a joy.

Bartok was an ultra-structuralist who embodied neoclassicism to the core; his thematic structure was comparable in complexity to J.S. Bach, though much less melodious, more dissonant and decidedly more contemporary in harmony.

You might have been concerned that Ferrandis never turned to look at Weiss and the keyboard---no doubt because the orchestral parts needed close attention and sharp cuing.

Bartok had been enamored of the timpani; the opus could almost be called concerto for piano and kettle drums. The latter enter again and again, like a thunderstorm, somewhat magnified because of the hall acoustics, and usually right on the beat.

Pianist Weiss was a superior choice for this technically demanding concerto. He not only managed the rapid-fire filigree of this work, which the composer himself had introduced in 1933, but showed a lot of subtlety in dynamics, never content just to pound out the thousands of notes on the page.

Overall, the hall acoustics at Weill Hall are admirable, with a welcome sonic afterglow. In the balcony, you get fine ensemble blending of the whole orchestra, If instead you sit downstairs closeup, the sound is stronger, and the individual musicians are readily recognizable. Each has its appeal.

Liszt's “Les preludes,” opened the program. For many years after World War Two, groups on both sides of the Atlantic avoided playing it, as the brass-chorale theme had been used countless times by the Nazis for their propaganda-bulletin broadcasts. The association was so distasteful that only belatedly and gradually has this rousing romantic piece returned to orchestral-concert repertoire---as well it should, since it is arguably Liszt's finest orchestral piece, written a century before the war by a composer who was not even German. The SRS' horn section was resplendent.

The Nov. 5 concert concluded with Schumann's Symphony No. 2, firmly rendered, full of the marches and German-romantic touches that Schumann favored and savored. His most sensitive moments come to life in the much lighter touch of the slow movement, where the lyricism is paramount, as produced by oboe soloist Laura Reynolds and cohorts in the winds.

CHANGING OF THE GUARD---This is Ferrandis' final season as music director. Next season concerts feature five candidates for his job, each leading a separate concert set: Francesco Lecce-Chong, Mei-Ann Chen, Andrew Grams, Graeme Jenkins and Michael Christie. The 6th and 7th concert set will be led by Ferrandis.

November 6, 2016: Santa Rosa Symphony offer up stars of the keyboard

By: , November 6, 2016 - Diane Peterson, Press Democrat

The Santa Rosa Symphony led by Music Director Bruno Ferrandis offered up a colorful trio of works by three, virtuoso pianists Saturday night at the Green Music Center’s Weill Hall, including the rarely heard and devilishly difficult Bartok Piano Concerto No. 2 performed by American pianist Orion Weiss.

Weiss, who will turn 35 on Tuesday, was named after the most visible constellation in the Northern hemisphere’s winter sky. A graduate of Juilliard who studied with pianist Emanuel Ax, Weiss brought plenty of star power to bear on the Bartok, which is so challenging that some flatly refuse to play it. British pianist Andras Schiff once called it a “finger-buster,” and Israeli-American pianist Yefim Bronfman injured himself a few times on its thornier passages.

With Weill Hall lit up ominously in red and pre-concert lecturer Kayleen Asbo warning us to “look out for the bloody keyboard,” it was a relief when Weiss managed to survive the rhythmic complexity and relentless brutality of the 28-minute concerto, written by the famous Hungarian composer in 1931.

Weiss played the keyboard work brilliantly, with machine-gun clarity. Amazingly, he also performed it from memory. Under Ferrandis’ baton, the orchestra matched him beat by angular beat, rhythm by fractured rhythm, marching through the controlled chaos of the first and third movements with clear-eyed precision.

But the intensity of the music, while underlining the percussive power of the piano, did not always transcend the notes and emerge with the exuberance and joy one would expect.

Part of the problem, at least from my seat, was that the piano was often difficult to hear, especially in the first movement, a Stravinsky-like romp punctuated by racing octave scales and a crazed cadenza. There are just so many notes — the pianist has only 23 measures of rest — that you hardly notice the strings are just sitting silently, while the rest of the orchestra provides the accompaniment.

The elegiac adagio, written in the spirit of Bartok’s eerie night music, brought a mesmerizing reprieve from the motoric energy of the first movement, with the strings adding a lush, hushed, nearly transparent sound.

The concerto concluded with another restless folk dance, tossing up recycled themes from the first movement and interjecting pointed dialogue between piano, brass and percussion. The complex rondo, driven to a climactic conclusion, brought the audience immediately to its feet.

While the Bartok was intellectually provocative, the other two works eclipsed it in terms of sheer emotion. They also provided a handy vehicle for the orchestra’s musicians to shine with nuanced playing and solos.

The program opened with Hungarian composer Franz Lizst’s “Les Préludes,” a symphonic poem completed in 1854 as a paean to nature. Lizst created the new musical form to reconcile poetry with music, and this particular example — full of far-off horn calls, mournful woodwinds and swirling strings — evokes the serenity of the countryside, broken only by a nerve-tingling storm that rises and falls in intensity, thanks to evocative orchestration for timpani and brass.

Ferrandis rounded out the program with another literary composer, Robert Schumann, whose father was a bookseller. Schumann’s Symphony No. 2, written in 1846, took the audience on an uplifting journey, from the solemn brass fanfare of the first movement, reminiscent of a Bach chorale, to the triumphant finale, with its nod to Beethoven’s 9th symphony.

Written in the sunny key of C major, the work also includes a spirited scherzo of perpetual motion, pulled off with amazing accuracy and endurance by the strings. The slow movement took a soulful dip into C minor, spinning out sublime melodies full of yearning and colorful solos executed by woodwinds and horns.

The clouds parted in the final movement, with the ensemble carefully building to the joyful conclusion, executing clear, dotted rhythms and triplets along with nicely nuanced dynamics. It was a memorable trip from darkness to light, worth every finger-numbing note.

The Santa Rosa Symphony will repeat the Saturday program at 8 p.m. Monday at the Green Music Center’s Weill Hall at Sonoma State University in Rohnert Park. Tickets: $20-$80.

Staff writer Diane Peterson can be reached at 707-521-5287 or On Twitter @dianepete56.

October 13, 2016: Duet for Flute and Baton

By: Steve Osborn, October 13, 2016 - Classical Sonoma

Sustain, sustain, sustain! That exhortation often passes the lips of music teachers, and their students’ success is often judged by how well they master the concept. Two students who mastered it to perfection are Bruno and Jean Ferrandis, the “Brothers in Black” who led and soloed in the Santa Rosa Symphony’s October opening set of concerts in Weill Hall. 

The basic idea of sustain is to play all the way through the note and the phrase, never letting the energy peter out. This quality is nowhere more necessary than in wind instruments, where the player has to control intake and expenditure of breath without running out of air or gasping for more. Jean Ferrandis, the flute soloist for his brother’s orchestra, proved himself a master of sustain in two radically different flute concertos by Bernstein and Mozart, along with a breathtaking encore by Debussy. 

Not to be outdone, brother Bruno coaxed an equal level of sustain from his wonderful orchestra, which kept driving forward through pieces fast and slow, never letting their intensity falter. Each piece offered its own gripping narrative, from the haunting beginning of Britten’s “Four Sea Interludes” to the propulsive climax of Beethoven’s Eighth Symphony. 

Soloist and orchestra were equally praiseworthy, but let’s begin with Jean, who opened with a heartfelt rendition of “Halil,” Bernstein’s nocturne for flute and small orchestra. He immediately displayed a beautiful, even sound that carried to the farthest reaches of the balcony, where music reviewers tend to sit. He sustained his notes well beyond the limits of ordinary breath without a hint of effort or strain. 

“Halil” itself is somewhat amorphous, with a luxuriant opening melody that passes back and forth between the soloist, the principal flutist (Kathleen Lane Reynolds), the concertmaster (Joseph Edelberg) and principal violist (Elizabeth Prior). This dialogue transforms into a Broadway-style dance and is then replaced by a lengthy section where the soloist is accompanied only by percussion. Here Jean shone, holding the audience in rapt silence as he wove in and out of the percussive backdrop. The piece finally reverts to the opening melody, repeatedly employing a descending six-note phrase, and it ends with a long note from the flute, which Jean stretched to the limit. 

In “Halil,” Jean proved a master of atmospherics, but in Mozart’s G Major flute concerto (K. 313) he displayed an equal mastery of relaxed precision. In Mozart the soloist is fully exposed, and even the slightest misstep can turn into a tumble. Jean negotiated Mozart’s trickiest passages with ease, dancing along with a feathery tread. His phrasing in the beautiful second movement was exquisite, matched only by his virtuosity in the third. 

After a well-deserved standing ovation, Jean encored with Debussy’s “Syrinx” for solo flute, a brilliant showcase for his breath control and tone. After all his work with the orchestra, it was a revelation to hear him all alone. If anything, his sound was even more gorgeous than before. 

Following his brother was no easy task, but Bruno displayed his own mastery of conducting sustain in a riveting performance of Beethoven’s eighth symphony. The orchestra produced a tight, unified sound from the beginning, with the strings playing unerringly in the fastest passages. The precision was particularly evident in the sprightly second movement, where the orchestra sounded at times like a string quartet. The minuet third movement tempo was a bit too deliberate, but the French horn duo over cello arpeggios was delightful. The real fireworks occurred in the finale, which builds up bit by bit to a stunning climax. Here the sound was transparent, with no mud to cloud the headlong rush to the end. 

The Beethoven was great, but the piece that opened the program, Britten’s “Four Sea Interludes,” was every bit its equal. Taken from his 1945 opera “Peter Grimes,” the interludes portray the sea in its multiple moods and rages. The first interlude begins with a high phrase in the violins that features a sustained trill. The unity of the strings here was impressive, and it set the stage for a sensitive, intricate performance of Britten’s majestic score. 

Conductor and players handled the dense orchestration with ease and grace. Many passages stood out: the handoffs of the compelling staccato theme from woodwinds to strings to brass; the insistent plucking of the harp; the compelling force of the kettledrums. All these and more combined for a fiery and dramatic performance that left one wishing to hear the entire opera, arguably Britten’s greatest work. 

October 10, 2016: Jean Ferrandis with Santa Rosa Symphony: Storms of the Upper Air

By: Adam Broner, October 10, 2016 - Piedmont Post

Bruno Ferrandis opened his final year with the Santa Rosa Symphony this past weekend in an ambitious program. The last ten years under his baton have been exhilarating, and his flamboyant conducting will be missed. But a search for his replacement as Artistic Director has already begun, and next year should be a lot of fun as five different conductors do their best to wow the savvy North Bay audience.

Monday evening’s program, Oct 10, in Weill Hall at Sonoma State featured the talents of his brother, flutist Jean Ferrandis, and he was extraordinary.

But before his brother’s entrance, Bruno stretched the orchestra in an intensely atmospheric tone poem, Benjamin Britten’s Four Sea Interludes. This was music that Britten had put together out of his opera, Peter Grimes, and the music was as yearning and contradictory as the opera is grimly compelling.Bruno Ferrandis-photo by Susan and Neil Silverman

In concert with the flute theme of the evening, Interludes begins with long-held flute notes in unison with high violins, a single sound as plaintive as a sea gull on a cold British coast. These were answered by the lowing of horns and bass trombone.

This felt like Nature in all Her Awful Grandeur, the high thin winds, the clarinet-quick scrabble of sand crabs, the rhythmic billowing of breakers, the stillness of the sea. There were inexplicable points of brightness with sharp wood blocks and marimba, and a call-and-response of clarinet and horns, transforming that early morning feeling into the hurly-burly of midday.

And then Ferrandis gathered his forces for a storm, with low timpani sounding as hushed and dramatic, and a chromatic step by step climb of big brass. Afterwards, soft cymbal and harp notes divided the silence like stars after the storm. The conducting was exacting, almost joyful in its tension.

The two Ferrandis brothers came out to sustained applause, and then swept into an unusual work, Leonard Bernstein’s Halil: Nocturne for Flute and Small Orchestra. This was late Bernstein, an experiment in tone rows that still had room for lyricism and touches of jazz.  Halil is the Hebrew word for a shepherd’s pipe, and as modern as the work was, there remains the lively feeling of that ancient instrument. And Bernstein did not let it stand on its own, but shadowed it with the warmth of low alto flute, and high piccolo echoed its phrases, played respectively by Kathleen Lane Reynolds and Stacey Pelinka. Those two had already distinguished themselves in the Britten.

Jean was warm, bright and unforced, linking Bernstein’s curious intervals into miles of scenic road, while the orchestra exercised lovely color and restraint. In many of his moments he was accompanied by percussion, with one lovely cadenza arrayed against soft kettle drum.

He returned after intermission in Mozart’s Concerto No. 1 in G Major for Flute and Orchestra, and the two works could not have been more different. Mozart seems to understand the flute better than Bernstein, and here Jean was able to display its rich bottom and pure upper ranges, with the whole full of eye-popping cadenzas… and lyricism! Magical!

Jean FerrandisAfter the first movement the audience erupted into spontaneous applause (as they would have in Mozart’s day, instead of holding their applause to the end). The Adagio felt more like Handel, with limpid strings and expressive horns – and those horns were tight throughout, led by Meredith Brown and Alex Camphouse, regulars of the Berkeley and Oakland Symphonies. Jean finished with a flute cadenza full of poise and snap.

He returned after several bows and explained that he was going to do an encore. “Tomorrow we are taking plane [back to France]. I know him [Bruno] since he was [this high]. I could play Bach, but I want to improvise on ‘Bruno.’ The theme is [and he played five notes spelling out his brother’s name].”

It was an astonishing moment, lyrical and liquid, with notes falling like curtains of raindrops, and the whole improvised on the spot with the ‘theme’ popping out unexpectedly. The audience stood back up and applauded long.

The younger Ferrandis retook the stage to lead Beethoven’s good-natured Symphony No. 8 in F Major, which I recently heard in the East Bay. This orchestra’s professional core was exceptionally tight, and better than most orchestras. But it was the end of a long evening and the energy was beginning to run out. If this were first on the program, they would have been selling the CD’s.

April 4, 2016: Colorful Falla and Provocative Britten Works in SRS Weill Hall Concerts

By: Terry McNeill, April 4, 2016 - San Francisco Classical Voice

Current fashion in orchestra season marketing showcases themes, and it’s de rigueur now, from the fledgling Sonoma County Philharmonic to the august San Francisco Symphony. Some of these themes are inane, but the Santa Rosa Symphony’s set of three concerts beginning April 2, with the event title “Rhythmic Vitality,” was singularly appropriate. 

In the April 4 Weill Hall concert Britten’s Cello Symphony (Op. 68) and Falla’s complete music from the ballet “The Three Cornered Hat” had rhythmic interest by the truckload. With cellist Zuill Bailey performing the demanding but often introspective solo, the Britten work from 1963 was provocative. It’s constructed in an unusual format of four movements, the final two linked by an instrumental cadenza, and though loved by virtuosos it has not been popular with the public. 

Mr. Bailey made a strong case for the Symphony, working with conductor Bruno Ferrandis to considerable effect. It needs to be said that this is a difficult piece to initially like, and much audience reaction in the lobby at intermission seemed to confirm this. Surprisingly the soloist used both a microphone and a score, playing much of the work with little vibrato that allowed the upper register partials to clearly sound. One needed to look elsewhere for easy tunes, and Mr. Bailey, who I have admired in recent Napa and San Rafael performances, was at his best in the ruminating first-movement phrases and slashing attacks over flute and bassoon parts, and a knockout cadenza. From a balcony seat the cello tone sounded muddy and indistinct at places, contrasting with the lucid and sonorous orchestra. 

Much low-drone cello playing and extended vibrato was heard in the Presto and adagio and the musical sun came out in the finale. Here the music rises to a luminous finish, and perhaps audience comprehension leading to a standing ovation. 

Falla’s wonderful 1919 Ballet score received a performance of orchestral color and sparkling effects. The audience of 950 seemed to physically move with the unfolding of piquant Andalusian folk tunes and brassy sway, something foreign in the Britten. The music throughout suppresses string importance (save for bass and cello) and is a tour de force for winds. There was lovely playing from the clarinet (Roy Zajac), bassoon (Carla Wilson), oboist Laura Reynolds and Stacy Pelinka’s piccolo. 

Mr. Ferrandis drew some exceptional Spanish colors from his orchestra, shaping the clarinet and harp (Dan Levitan) duo, the abbreviated piano parts and a scintillating pizzicato accelerando in the Seguidillas section. This piece needs the sure hand that Mr. Ferrandis has, always the picture of control and energy on the podium. The two vocal passages, totaling just 85 seconds, were sung by mezzo-soprano Bonnie Brooks, and past without much notice in the lush 40-minute composition.

Opening the concert was New York composer Daniel Brewbaker’s Blue Fire, a 15-minute exploration of contrast and instrumental tint. The composer was in attendance and took three curtain calls, and spoke elegantly during the pre-concert talk alongside Mr. Bailey and Mr. Ferrandis. The 2013 premiere was at a Napa Valley summer festival.

As with many freshly-minted orchestra works, it was heavy with loud timpani and brass, but there were rhapsodic and lyrical sections with echoes of Bernstein and movie scores. Movements (I counted two) are constantly shifting, with standout parts for tuba (Scott Choate), Ms. Reynold’s oboe and Mr. Zajac. The percussion and timpani sections were busy and chimes and marimba parts were distinct, unlike an inaudible piano part. Often in newer music the pianist can be seen but not heard. 

Blue Fire ended with a long and orderly climax in the strings, a counterpoint to the frequent previous offbeat brass phrases and insistent incisive rhythms. As with the balance of the program it was Mr. Ferrandis’ triumph, his diligent command directing every facet of the music. 

February 21, 2016: Ever Westward Eternal Rider

By: Steve Osborn, February 21, 2016 - San Francisco Classical Voice


Like her violin virtuoso colleagues, Rachel Barton Pine can make herself heard above the din of a full orchestra without noticeable effort; but what made her Feb. 21 performance with the Santa Rosa Symphony memorable was how softly she played. Although she dispatched the forte and fortissimo passages in the Beethoven D Major concerto with élan, her intensity increased markedly the softer she became. The most gripping points in each movement were the trills and other filigrees in the upper registers, which she played on the very edge of audibility to a rapt Weill Hall audience. 

Any musician can play loudly, but those who can play quietly without any loss of energy or tempo are rare indeed. By the same token, any competent soloist can play all the notes of the Beethoven concerto, but those who can make sense of them and express their meaning are few. In this department, Pine was somewhat lacking. She hit all the notes, to be sure, but her performance was occasionally choppy and lacked fluidity. 

Instead of merging one phrase or musical idea into the next, Ms. Pine often separated them, disrupting the forward motion and draining some of the drama. More often than not, however, the beauty of individual passages shone through. Her cadenza for the first movement was a treat, as was the lovely duet with bassoonist Carla Wilson in the slow movement. Ms. Pine seemed finally to relax in the playful finale, which was marked by a forceful and convincing drive to the conclusion. 

The applause was significant, so the violinist obliged with an encore: the Andante from Bach’s second sonata for unaccompanied violin. Here again the pianissimo was bewitching, and it combined with a steady pulse on the lower strings to ravishing effect. 

More ravishment appeared in the second half, in the form of Bruckner’s unfinished Symphony No. 9. This colossal work lasts over an hour, and that’s just for the first three movements. Who knows how long it would have been had Bruckner lived to complete the finale? 

Ultimately, time is immaterial in Bruckner’s final work. The structure he employs in all three movements resembles nothing so much as a series of ocean waves, beginning in a valley and rising inexorably to a peak before crashing down again. The ascents and descents are most often chromatic, with a lushly romantic aura: chromanticism. Bruckner’s technique may be chromantic, but his content is most often dark and dramatic, even sinister. He incessantly combines and recombines short motifs that lead ever onward. His quest seems to be for some deep, hidden meaning in the world of sound. 

Conductor Bruno Ferrandis displayed a firm grasp of Bruckner’s score, carefully guiding his players through the various phrases, crescendos and decrescendos, accelerandos and ritards. He most often conducted with two symmetrical hands, drawing out a foreboding, intense and elemental sound. 

The first movement was spine-tingling, resolving in the home key at the very peak of a wave. The intensity only increased in the second, which features a devilish seven-note figure--a triplet and four march steps on a single note--that Gustav Holst later appropriated for the Mars section of “The Planets.” In Holst, the figure conjures up the god of war, but here it seemed a symbol of onrushing fate. Again, Mr. Ferrandis and company played the score to maximum effect, creating a tremendous, fiery sound with sustained energy. 

The third movement proved even more gripping. The playing was muscular and assured, and the orchestration was dazzling. The conductor kept all the iterations of the theme intact, leading to a startling dissonant chord that resolves into a serene passage at the end. 

The performance was one of the Symphony’s most profound efforts in recent years, rivaling anything they’ve done in that time. An otherwise unremarkable Sunday afternoon turned into a thrilling exploration of uncharted musical territory, filled with both apocalyptic fury and rays of hope. 

January 12, 2016: Pure Gold from Caroline Goulding and Santa Rosa Symphony

By: Steve Osborn, January 12, 2016 - San Francisco Classical Voice

Could Mei-Ann Chen be a candidate to replace Bruno Ferrandis at the helm of the Santa Rosa Symphony when his contract expires at the end of the 2017-18 season? If so, she would be a strong contender. Her impressive guest conducting at the orchestra’s Jan. 10 concert at Weill Hall in Sonoma State’s Green Center was overshadowed, however, by a staggering performance from the young violinist Caroline Goulding, who played the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto to perfection.

Goulding is the most impressive violin soloist this reviewer has heard since Hilary Hahn burst on the scene more than 20 years ago. Goulding’s technique is impeccable, her intonation superb, her bow arm a wonder, and her fingers anatomical marvels. Her musicianship, however, is what sets her apart from her many technically gifted colleagues.

Barely into her 20s, Goulding plays like a seasoned musician, alert to all the subtle nuances and possibilities of the music. No matter how many fully articulated notes fly off her violin, the important ones always come to the fore. The phrase always takes precedence, and the sound is consistently gorgeous.

With her mop of curly blond hair and a red dress, Goulding looked like a pillar of fire capable of igniting anything she played. The only blemish to her otherwise radiant appearance was a music stand with a score. One can only guess how much more engaging her performance would have been without that memory aid. (To be fair, Goulding is performing violin concertos by Beethoven, Bach, Mozart, Mendelssohn, Sibelius, Glazunov, Paganini, Prokofiev, Bruch, and Ligeti during her jam-packed 2015-16 season, to say nothing of multiple recitals and other performances.)

In the Tchaikovsky, Goulding displayed an elegant, room-filling sound from the outset, easily bringing the softest passages to the remotest corners of Weill Hall. Her body was in constant motion, crouching forward during the virtuosic passages and swaying from side to side during the emotive ones. Her tone was exquisite, even in the highest registers and the many harmonics called for in the score.

Meanwhile, Chen had the orchestral dynamics firmly in control. The orchestra never once overpowered Goulding, and their playing in the softer passages was well below pianissimo. Both Chen and Goulding took their time, letting phrases linger before transitioning to the next. Goulding’s cadenza in the first movement was stupendous, as complete a musical experience as one could wish for.

Goulding, Chen, and the orchestra sustained the same high level of musicianship throughout the concerto. The fireworks of the first movement gave way to the delicacy and luxuriance of the second and then the awe-inspiring dances of the third. The standing ovation at the end was sustained but sadly produced no encore. Nonetheless, we’re sure to hear from Goulding again.

Earlier, Chen set the mood for the afternoon with an invigorating performance of contemporary Chinese composer An-Lun Huang’s Saibei Dance. The melodies, inspired by Chinese folk songs, were sprightly, and the orchestration was inventive; but it was all over in four minutes, barely enough for a taste.

The second half offered a better opportunity to observe Chen’s conducting skill, with a performance of Dvorak’s Symphony No. 8. Chen led with economical movements and an easy-to-follow beat. The musicians appeared to be well-rehearsed, with good unison playing from the strings and excellent balance between the orchestral sections.

The performance of the first movement was energetic, but the full sound of the orchestra didn’t emerge until the second, where sharply delineated phrases and assured pace led to full resonance and shimmering beauty. The graceful waltzes of the third movement were taken a bit too slowly, but individual sections were often serene.

All the stops came out in the finale, which the trumpets announced with a stirring fanfare. The low strings maintained that energy, and the atmosphere became supercharged when the full orchestra joined in, with standout playing by principal flutist Kathleen Lane Reynolds. Although not as magical as the Tchaikovsky performance, Chen got everything she wanted out of the players, and then some.


Steve Osborn, a medical writer and editor by day, moonlights as a violist, singer, and music critic.

November 8, 2015: Two Steps Forward, One Back

By: Steve Osborn, November 8, 2015 - Classical Sonoma

Santa Rosa Symphony’s Nov. 7 concert ran the gamut, not only from new to old, but also from impassioned to inert. The new was Gyorgy Kurtag’s “...quasi una fantasia...”; the old were the Schumann piano concerto and Brahms’ first symphony. The Brahms and Kurtag performances were lively, but the Schumann was moribund. 

Let’s start with the lively ones. “...quasi una fantasia...” was clearly unusual even before the music began. Instead of the standard orchestral seating arrangement, the chairs were shuffled around into five groups. The first group was a semicircle of chairs and piano at the front of the stage. Behind that semicircle, four other groups of chairs were scattered about the stage in a seemingly random pattern. 

Another deviation from the norm was the absence of musicians, even when the lights went down. After a brief pause, they finally filed onto the stage and settled into their respective groups. The semicircle comprised a handful of strings and the piano on stage right, woodwinds in the middle, and brass on stage left, opposite the strings. The other groups were mostly percussion, but one was a collection of harmonica players. 

Conductor Bruno Ferrandis briefly explained the four short movements of the piece, and then the musicians got to work. The sound from the beginning was distinctive, with a halo of percussion around slow and low descending notes beginning in the piano. The harmonicas and a marimba added to the unusual texture, which was simultaneously thick and delicate. 

The second movement began with heavy percussion and then segued into the third, a deliberate march, as if to a funeral. Nearly all the instruments soloed briefly as the march proceeded relentlessly in the background. The last movement featured dense sonorities that required full attention. The descending scales appeared again, resolving into a final wash of sound from the harmonicas. “...quasi una fantasia...” lasts just nine minutes, but each one is packed with innovation and surprise. It was the perfect foil for the older works on the program, demonstrating that contemporary works can equal or even surpass the classics. 

One of those classics occupied the second half. Brahms’ first symphony is an oft-repeated gem of which audiences never seem to tire. Perhaps that’s because all the parts are so authoritative and finely honed that they feel like the building blocks of a mighty fortress. Musicians, however, still have to breathe life into the parts and make sure they fit together. 

The musicians at hand proved up to the task, digging in with gusto from the opening bars. The strings began each new phrase with an emphatic down-bow and bowed in unison with nary an outlier. Ferrandis infused the performance with drama by pushing tempi and eliciting pinpoint crescendos and diminuendos. At one point the syncopations got so intricate that several musicians began tapping their toes. 

The unanimity of sound and pace was impressive, and the many solos were a delight. One of the standouts was the violin and horn duet in the slow second movement. Concertmaster Joseph Edelberg hit all the high notes, and Alex Camphouse's French horn articulation and phrasing were superb. The symphony hurtled forward with only brief pauses between the movements and really began picking up steam in the finale. The spark was the resonant and accelerating pizzicato at the opening, followed by heroic playing from the horns and woodwinds, and then the memorable theme. Ferrandis has a real gift for driving the orchestra forward, and drive them he did, right to the spine-tingling close. 

In Schumann’s A Minor concerto, piano soloist Pedja Muzijevic was technically perfect but demonstrated little passion or projection. He sat straight at the keyboard and came down heavy on the pedal. The sound that emerged from the lid was precise but curiously muted, almost as if under water. At times the orchestra drowned him out. 

Muzijevic's technique, however, was awesome. His fingers flew across the keys and fluttered so rapidly that they often seemed to be floating above the keys rather than striking them. All the notes were there, but they never ignited. Schumann is a composer who demands fire, yet there were no flames in evidence, not even smoke, and the performance became a mere collection of notes. 

October 13, 2015: Piano Duo Syncs With Santa Rosa Symphony in Concertos

By: Steve Osborn, October 13, 2015 - San Francisco Classical Voice

The Santa Rosa Symphony season opener was a double bill in more ways than two. It featured two piano concertos and two pianos played by two identical twins. Pianist sisters Christina and Michelle Naughton are virtually indistinguishable from afar, and they also wore the same dresses.  They were even more indistinguishable in their playing and technique. They and the orchestra came together for an evening of superior music-making on Sunday at Sonoma State’s Green Music Center.

The Naughton’s synchronicity is the essential quality for a piano duo. Instead of contending with a pair of divergent interpretations, conductor Bruno Ferrandis and the orchestra enjoyed the luxury of playing with one super-pianist with four arms and 20 fingers.

The unanimity was apparent from the opening measures of Mozart’s Concerto For Two Pianos, K. 365. Playing gracefully together, they traded emotionally matched lines back and forth, with neither trying to outdo the other.

The Mozart concerto, suffused with incandescent melodies, is a wonderful piece, and it received a wonderful performance. The orchestra projected a warm sound, creating an expansive backdrop for the Naughtons’ remarkable artistry. Each movement was sharply etched, with rock-solid playing. The only flaw — and it was a minor one — was the Naughtons’ restricted dynamic range in the last movement. The soft passages could have been softer and the loud much louder.

In Francis Poulenc’s Concerto For Two Pianos, one of the sisters’ calling cards, their playing was exemplary. This rarely heard concerto is a model of musical invention and vivacity. It begins fervently, with rapid call and response between the two pianos, and between the pianos and orchestra. The interchange was playful and rollicking.

The complexity of the first movement was balanced by the simplicity of the second. The Naughtons played an ethereal, looping duet that sounded almost minimalist in its incessant repetitions. 
The final movement began with a piano solo that sounded straight out of Mozart. After an orchestral response, the subsequent solo sounded like Beethoven. The next time around, it was Chopin. This constant shift of musical personalities was matched by a stunning variety of sounds and textures from the orchestra. 

The two concertos were bracketed by a concert-opening new work and a closing favorite. The new one came from the pen of Mohammed Fairouz, a widely performed, 30-year-old, Arab-American composer who has already produced an impressive body of work. His style is accessible, distinctive, and inventive — with the notable exception of the work commissioned and premiered by the Santa Rosa Symphony, Pax Universalis.

The new piece begins promisingly enough, with strings syncopating against a resonant and well-struck wood block, which tocks like a metronome. The melody sounds faintly Mexican, in a traditionally cheerful, dance-like vein. After a few more bars, it begins to sound like a John Williams movie score. The melody is traded back and forth between strings, woodwinds and brass without developing into anything else and the music builds to a predictable climax. 

If Pax Universalis had been written by somebody less renowned, it could be dismissed out of hand. But because it’s from Fairouz, you wonder if it’s just an aberration.

Another aberration, this one positive, closed the program: Saint-Saens’ Symphony No.3, “Organ.” Most of Saint-Saens’ music has faded from the repertoire, but the “Organ” Symphony is still much performed, and with good reason. Its themes are memorable, its effect, in a good performance, transformative.

All cylinders were firing in the symphony’s well-oiled traversal. The orchestra was responsive to Ferrandis’s baton, the sound was rich and full, the string sections played in ringing unison. The organ, ably played by Charles Rus, transformed the second movement into a church service and began the last with a tremendous bang.

Perhaps the most impressive aspect was the relentless forward momentum, which began barreling along so rapidly in the third movement that Ferrandis’s baton flew high in the air and landed in the audience. With a replacement in hand, he continued fervently leading the orchestra through the triumphant finale.

Steve Osborn, a medical writer and editor by day, moonlights as a violist, singer, and music critic.

October 11, 2015: Seamless Sister Act Opens Santa Rosa Symphony Season

By: Diane Peterson, October 11, 2015 - Press Democrat

The Santa Rosa Symphony opened its 88th season Saturday night at Weill Hall with an exotic tapestry of Arabic and French melodies, two double piano concertos and an “organ” symphony that generated so much energy it seemed like the hall might lift off the ground like a steampunk balloon.
It was a challenging program, bringing to mind Emperor Joseph II ‘s famous complaint about the opera “The Marriage of Figaro” — “Too many notes, Mozart.”

As a result, ensemble and balance was a bit ragged in places, with the orchestral engine not always bringing the valves in sync with the pistons, but that was a small price to pay for the dazzling kaleidoscope effect of such an ambitious, colorful program.

For fans of the Classical era, the highlight of the evening was the Mozart Concerto No. 10 for Two Pianos, starring twin sisters Christina and Michelle Naughton, who performed the palate cleanser with playful clarity and otherworldly synchronicity.

The 27-year-old pianists, who studied at Curtis Institute of Music and at the Juilliard School, wore gold shoes and dip-hem, red sheaths that were of a slightly different hue and cut, but nearly identical. The color scheme echoed the red-and-gold interiors of the two grand pianos, which were nestled into each other like a Tao symbol.

Pianist Joseph Kalichstein, who taught the sisters at Juilliard, once remarked, “When they play together, they seem to have one mind and one body — it’s extraordinary — like one person with two hands playing.”

Indeed, the pianists’ Mozart ensemble matched seamlessly, from the declarative first movement with playful trills and cadenza to the mesmerizing second movement with its lyrical dialogue between soloists. The bright, rondo finale, used in the soundtrack of the 1984 film “Amadeus,” ended the first half on a high note.

Under Music Director Bruno Ferrandis’ baton, the orchestra provided a sensitive, well-executed accompaniment — not always easy with Mozart — and the work drew an immediate standing ovation from the nearly sold-out crowd.

After intermission, the twins switched pianos to perform Poulenc’s Concerto for Two Pianos, a polished and persuasive work that spans the Classicism of Mozart, the Romanticism of Rachmaninoff and the modern dissonance of Stravinsky.

At turns jocular and dreamy, morose and sensuous, the schizophrenic work lurches from the jazzy rhythms of Parisian music halls to more nostalgic, childlike tunes worthy of Mozart, such as the melody that opens the second movement. The work blasts to a forceful conclusion with a blur of brilliant themes and a rag-doll-like dance required by the pianists’ facile hands.

The evening concluded with another nuanced French work: Saint-Saens Symphony No. 3, also known as the “Organ Symphony,” although technically it is a symphony “with organ,” not for organ. Only two out of four sections call for organ, which was played admirably by Charles Rus.
Like the composer himself, the third symphony has been accused of being over the hill, a warhorse on its way to the orchestral glue factory. However, the French Jew was at the height of his power when he wrote his third and last symphony, and he poured his heart into it, writing it as a summation of his long career.

Under Ferrandis’ baton, the symphony made a strong case for the work, which sparkles with beautiful string melodies and fugal writing. Even though the ending comes across as more bombastic than honest, the brass section really shone, picking up where they left off during Mahler’s Symphony No. 3 at last season’s finale.

A world premiere of Mohammed Fairouz’ “Pax Universalis” opened the program with syncopated rhythms, exotic percussion and a hint of the minor Phyrgian scale of Middle Eastern music. The work seemed purposefully naive, with simple harmonies and a repetitive groove that was non-offensive, if not peaceful.

The symphony will repeat the Saturday program at 8 p.m. Monday at the Green Music Center’s Weill Hall at Sonoma State University in Rohnert Park. Tickets: are $20 to $80 and available at

Staff writer Diane Peterson can be reached at 521-5287 or On Twitter @dianepete56.

October 10, 2015: Outstanding opening for Santa Rosa Symphony

By: Adam Broner, October 10, 2015 - Repeat Performances

After a concert at Sonoma State’s Weill Hall one is left with an appreciation for acoustics that should be part of every concert experience. The design and dimensions of this hall, which opened just four years ago, create a sound with a natural loft, clarity and intimacy that is breathtaking.

On Saturday, Oct. 10, Bruno Ferrandis led the Santa Rosa Symphony in a savvy season opener, mixing a populist new work and the timelessness of Mozart, colorist French creations and a brilliant sister act.

Along with the sound, what most stood out was the high level of professionalism from a cadre of musicians whose names grace the rosters of many local orchestras including the Berkeley and Oakland Symphonies, our “Freeway Philharmonic” hard at work. Under Ferrandis’ florid direction their solos were punchy and their ensembles were full and taut.

They began with the World Premiere of Pax Universalis by Mohammed Fairouz, a surprisingly pop-sounding offering that repeats the same melody throughout. Propelled by dotted-note urgency, Fairouz insinuates strands of Big Western themes and pop Arabic noodling into the work. While he is trying to formulate a sense of cultural identity and distinctiveness within a context of musical universality, the whole affair was a little too Disney.

But the audience loved it.

Immediately afterwards we were treated to an incomparable pair of “soloists,” twin sisters Christina and Michelle Naughton, performing Mozart’s Concerto No 1 in E-flat Major for orchestra and two pianos.
Mozart wrote this at the age of 22 for himself and his older sister Nannerl. They had already been a touring child prodigy act for over a decade, and this was the last piece he wrote before leaving home and his overbearing father. This work was golden and glorious and unmistakably Mozart, but it is still a young composer coming out of the Baroque era.

After Pax Universalis, I was surprised by the level of accessibility Mozart was striving for, again with the lilt of dotted notes, and with a motif that repeats nearly as much as Fairouz’ populist offering. Yes, Mozart was the pop icon of his day! But his “simpler” forms were not only brilliant in the way they transformed and generated themes, but built the foundations of the Classical era.

And it was a pleasure to hear the sheer playfulness between the two pianos, a mark of his love for his sister. Our identical twins certainly had that, along with a mesmerizing unity in this piece that is all about completing each other’s musical sentences.

After the concert I was able to speak with them for a moment. “Is one of you more Mozart and one of you more Nannerl?” I asked.

“No,” Christina answered. “Mozart was very even in the two piano parts. There is only one area where he seems to express… [personalities].” (I suspect that moment was when the warmer mid-tone piano made her entrance, certainly feeling like an older sister.)

I mentioned that I also have an identical twin brother who lives across the country.
“Oh, do you call him every day?” Michelle asked breathlessly.
“No,” I admitted, and felt guilty. We talked about Poulenc until the pressure of other people ended our conversation, but I later wrote my brother.

And that Poulenc! In his Concerto for Two Pianos those sweet young things showed their ferocious stature in a performance that simply blistered the air. Poulenc, a member of Le Six, was the “bad boy” of French composers, tangling common tunes and naughty jokes into his serious themes. And that irreverence only added to the immediacy of his writing. It was interesting to hear what Ferrandis, a French conductor, would do with this. His gestures were never minimal, like some conductors who strive for understatement in order to focus their squadrons. Ferrandis used his long and expressive hands to inspire a French passion and sensitivity, and his apparent reverence for this icon of the piano repertoire and for these two performers only enhanced their moments of humor.

The twins were firecrackers in the explosive first movement, and then severely internal in the Larghetto, quietly rendering a beauty that was almost intolerable in its constraint. The orchestra crept in on wheezes and sighs and then swelled into romanticism. The Naughtons turned the runs of the Allegro molto absolutely molten with doubled notes and tripping runs, and the orchestra feverishly followed and at times pasted together musical quotations in a fascinating display of artistic assemblage.

And then followed another big work of the French repertoire, Saint-Saëns famous “Organ” symphony. Colorful, woodsy, and driven, this paralleled Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony in its deep architecture and impulses. They both built their tensions out of short violin motifs and then brought out the winds. Where Schubert went for clarinet, Saint-Saëns chose English horn and throaty flutes, and then reprised those short themes into a huge closing argument for piano and organ. That ending is one of the great moments of the literature.

Saint-Saëns was more of a classicist than an impressionist, and actually loathed Debussy’s watery chords and whole tones. But his orchestration expanded on classical choices with very French colors, sumptuous winds and earthy bassoon. The Santa Rosa Symphony brass were crisp and stentorian, well deserving the standing ovation for their magnificent closing.

Next month, Nov. 7 – 9, this excellent orchestra performs Kurtág, Schuman and Brahms with another great pianist, Pedja Muzijevic. More information and tickets available at

May 5, 2015: Santa Rosa Symphony Masters Mahler’s Third

By: Steve Osborn, May 5, 2015 - San Francisco Classical Voice

Among Romantic symphonists, Mahler is the king of climaxes; he surges from one to the next orgiastically. His third symphony is a perfect example: It begins strong, fades to quietude, resurges to maximum amplitude, and repeats the process. For listeners willing to ride these waves, the experience can be unforgettable.
The Santa Rosa Symphony's performance of Mahler's epic work, in Weill Hall on a gloomy Sunday in early May, rewarded listeners amply. Under the inspired leadership of Bruno Ferrandis, the orchestra delivered a Mahler Third that remains etched in the mind.
The first notes, from no less than nine French horns, were bold, confident, and heraldic. The horns started loud and ended soft, punctuated by the beats of a huge bass drum on the other side of the stage. The notes rang out brightly, thanks in part to the superb acoustics of Weill Hall in Sonoma State University's Green Music Center. Only a slight discord on the top note marred the horn section's otherwise exemplary unison playing.
The horns dominated the long first movement, complemented by several gorgeous solos from principal trombonist Bruce Chrisp. Mahler marked the movement as "Strong, determined," and Ferrandis followed that instruction scrupulously. Despite the relatively slow pace and diversity of musical ideas, he marched the orchestra relentlessly forward. His movements on the podium were elegant and relaxed, a distinct change from earlier years when he seemed tense and high-strung.
An evocative offstage snare began the final section, which ended with a tremendous climax at top speed. It was hard to imagine what might follow, but the stage entry of Abigail Fischer, a young mezzo soprano, along with a women and children's choir that trooped into the choir loft behind the stage, marked an abrupt shift in mood. The second movement, a minuet, began slowly and quietly in the strings, with no brass in evidence. In the hands of the Symphony, the dance felt airy and graceful, with an effortlessly flowing theme.
The second movement morphed seamlessly into the third, marked "Without haste." Superb playing throughout the orchestra highlighted the many playful elements of this pastoral idyll, including bird calls and shimmering reflections. Most evocative, however, was an off-stage trumpet weaving in and out of the sonic fabric.
When the "Very slow" fourth movement began, Fischer finally rose from her seat and revealed her glorious voice. Over pianissimo strings, she glided into the rich, low opening words of Nietzsche's "Midnight song." "O Mensch! Gib Acht!" (Oh people, give heed) she sang, with excellent enunciation and a resonant tone. She made each note count.
Fischer continued standing to join with the chorus in the sprightly fifth movement, marked "Happy in tempo and impudent in expression." Here the children stood out, singing without score in purple dresses (girls) and white shirts (boys). Their bell-like voices were clearly audible above the black-clad women, many of whose faces were buried in scores that blocked their sound.
The über-climactic finale began magisterially in the strings, with the cellos carrying the melody. Ferrandis and the players were sensitive to the dynamics: Soft passages were truly soft, and loud ones swelled mightily. Mahler could go on forever, but he finally brings matters to a close with not one, but three tremendous climaxes and a sustained ending that closes and opens repeatedly until at last settling on a final note.  

Steve Osborn, a medical writer and editor by day, moonlights as a violist, singer, and music critic.


May 4, 2015: Santa Rosa Symphony soars through epic Mahler piece

By: Diane Peterson, May 4, 2015 - Press Democrat

The Santa Rosa Symphony closed its 87th season Saturday under Music Director Bruno Ferrandis with the first of three performances of Mahler’s Symphony No. 3, delivering a confident reading that soared through the span of the 90-minute work without ever looking back.

The concert in the Green Music Center’s Weill Hall marked the first time Ferrandis has conducted a full, Mahler symphony with the orchestra, a longtime dream that had been deferred by the lagging economy. (The army of musicians onstage for this work numbered nearly 170, including orchestra, mezzo-soprano Abigail Fischer and two choirs.)

Ferrandis studied at Juilliard with Mahler’s greatest champion, Leonard Bernstein, and conducted the sprawling and unorthodox work with sensitive restraint, allowing the angst-ridden music to speak for itself.

The orchestra in turn provided the sharp dynamic contrasts, plucky rhythms and seamless transitions that knit together the complicated collage of Mahler’s unique soundscape: military and funeral music, pastoral and Jewish music, all within the classic symphonic shape.

Like Beethoven, Mahler was an outsider — a conductor who composed in his spare time, a Jew who converted to Christianity, a deeply spiritual and idealistic man living in a jaded and decaying society. He was misunderstood by his contemporaries at the turn of the century, but he knew his time would come.

After 75 years of global holocausts spanning the ovens of Auschwitz and the jungles of Vietnam, Bernstein revived Mahler’s music in the 1960s out of appreciation for its unvarnished and prescient truths.

“Only after all of this can we finally listen to Mahler’s music and understand that it foretold all,” Bernstein wrote in 1981. “And in the foretelling it showered a rain of beauty on this world that has not been equaled since.”

For the Mahler lovers out there, sitting through a 90-minute symphony without an intermission — except for a seventh-inning stretch after the first movement — was not a big sacrifice. And for the rest, there were lots of lovely, trance-like moments that lured one to the edge of sleep, if not to the doors of heaven itself.

While a few of the orchestra’s principal players were missing, the assembled troops — including nine French horns, two timpanists and two harpists — pulled together as a well-oiled team to deliver the raw, emotional extremes of this physically challenging work.

Originally performed in piecemeal fashion, the Symphony No. 3 had its first complete performance in June 1902 with Mahler at the podium. The first movement, which he composed last, spans about a third of the symphony’s entire length.

It comprises a series of quick, bright marches interrupted by passages of dirge-like foreboding, but it ends with the triumph of light over dark. The cellos and basses were particularly precise with their grumbling entrances and concertmaster Joe Edelberg provided contrast with sweetly singing solos. The brass sections delivered piercing tone and precise intonation, especially in the solo passages.

After applauding at the triumphant close of first movement, the audience stood and stretched while the Santa Rosa Children’s Chorus and the Santa Rosa Symphony Honor Choir Women’s Chorus filed into the loft behind the stage for movements 2 through 6.

The “posthorn” — an offstage trumpet — did not hit every high note perfectly, but was nonetheless effective in evoking the acoustic space of Mahler’s “nature sound,” the primal experience of hearing a far-off bird or church bell. Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas of the San Francisco Symphony describes this acoustical experience as one of man’s essential needs. “It gives us a sense of perspective on ourselves and our relationship to the earth,” he said in his 1994 book, “Viva Voce.”

Likewise, the rich, marbled voice of mezzo-soprano Fischer struck just the right chord, and the softly sonorous voices of the women’s and children’s choirs — “Bim! Bom! Bim! Bom!” — rang with angelic joy.

The noble tone of the brass and timpani closed the work on a high note, and the audience’s cheers and whistles left no doubt that this grand finale would be remembered as the high point of the orchestra’s first three seasons at the Green Music Center.

With patience and hard work, the musicians under Ferrandis’ baton have grown accustomed to the hall’s sensitive acoustics. If this season is any indication, their future looks bright.

The symphony will repeat the Saturday program at 8 p.m. Monday at the Green Music Center’s Weill Hall at Sonoma State University in Rohnert Park. Tickets: $20 to $80.

You can reach Staff Writer Diane Peterson at 521-5287 or

March 24, 2015: Santa Rosa: The Russians Rule the Roost

By: Paul Hertelendy, March 24, 2015 -, the independent observer of San Francisco Bay Area music and dance

The Santa Rosa Symphony has got it all together in the wine country: a fine acoustic, stimulating programming, very good ensemble, and an inviting accessible locale. For the region, a signal asset!
Ever the pessimist, this critic arrived (March 21) expecting the worst. Instead, there was a lustrous “Firebird Suite,” and not one but two concertos played by the expressive Russian pianist Olga Kern. Add to that Weill Hall with its sterling acoustics, and you have a winner.

Kern was informative, spotlighting the contrasts of two leading Russian pianist-composers born in the late 19thcentury, both via their Piano Concerto No. 1. Rachmaninoff, with those huge powerful hands, wrote resonant, consonant chordal music with lovely progressions and memorable themes. Prokofiev on the other hand emphasized nimble virtuosity, with blizzards of high-velocity staccato notes and glissandi looking toward  our musical revolutions that were already budding.

Considered a wild-eyed radical in his day, Prokofiev was unsettled, with unresolved themes even lurking in the woodwinds. But Rachmaninoff meanwhile makes for velvet-glove easy listening by the fireside, with the Russian wolfhound sleeping protectively nearby.

Both were early works, written by 20ish tyros bent on conquering the musical world. Rachmaninoff’s was the less settled piece, calling for his revisions many years later in the version we hear today. Even so, there are moments of rather aimless wandering in the middle, often with the orchestra relegated to the background---the sort of flaws totally eliminated by his glorious Concertos Nos. 2 and 3.

Emerging in a pair of stunning evening gowns that could stop Kremlin traffic, Ms. Kern chose a welcome lyrical route where allowed, rather than taking the easy path of knocking the ivory off the keys.
Her agility at the keyboard was outstanding in both pieces.  Apart from a tendency for her piano to blanket the orchestral sound in the Prokofiev, her appearance was remarkable.

One of the greatest display pieces for sumptuous orchestration remains “The Firebird Suite” by yet another Russian, Igor Stravinsky. It’s a brilliant condensation of a 1910 ballet, full of fairy-tale coloration. This last of several rewrites features splashy glissandi on the trombones, plus that earth-shaking jolt when the evil Kastshei ogre lands unexpectedly on the scene. This is a giant jigsaw puzzle, with myriad instruments and effects. Memorable in the orchestra were solos from French horn (Meredith Brown), oboe (Laura Reynolds) and bassoon (Carla Wilson). Stravinsky must have loved the lowly bassoon, having written for it prominently, here as in “The Rite of Spring,” most notably.

The orchestra sounded very accomplished in this. Music Director Bruno Ferrandis conducted with his customary overblown, gestures, his long lean arms flying in all directions like condor’s wings. But he cued the players well and held his ground atop the podium.

The concert began with the very brief overture to the tragic Janacek opera “Katia Kabanova,” which ends with a strange jolt lacking a concluding cadence, as if the rest of the score were lost.

The SRS plays at Weill Hall, a site where the major expense went, laudably, not into fancy décor, comfort or elegance, but rather first-rate acoustics. My perch at balcony center, I wouldn’t trade with any one, and the considerable stair-climbing required to get there probably assures those  elevated patrons a stout heart and a long, long life.

© Paul Hertelendy 2015. Paul Hertelendy has been covering the dance and modern-music scene in the San Francisco Bay Area with relish -- and a certain amount of salsa -- for years. 

March 23, 2015: Ravishing Russian Music and Soloist Burnish SRS Concert in Weill

By: Terry McNeill, March 23, 2015 - Classical Sonoma


Photo: Olga Kern

It’s rare in a symphony concert, even one with many surprises, that a soloist takes on two disparate concertos with mostly identical results. But it was exactly the outcome of pianist Olga Kern’s appearance March 21 with the Santa Rosa Symphony in Weill Hall. 

Surprises? The first came with her poetic but subdued performance in Rachmaninoff’s Op. 1 F-Sharp Minor Concerto. Choosing an approach removed from the standard heroism (recordings by the composer and compatriot Mikhail Pletnev) she adopted subtle inner rubatos and voices at the expense of big sonority, even in the first movement sections that clearly reflect the Grieg Concerto written 23 years before Rachmaninoff’s First. The well-played cadenza was assured but lacked the intense ecstasy that is needed throughout cadenzas in the composer’s concertos. 

The Andante Cantabile was perfection, a lyric rumination where conductor Bruno Ferrandis crafted phrasing that melded with Ms. Kern’s deft dynamic control. The final arpeggio in the piano was lovely, as was the horn playing of Meredith Brown. The finale had the requisite excitement that easily overcame short sections where orchestra and soloist were not in sync and where the former’s sound covered the latter. There was a standing ovation and obviously the audience of 1,100 appreciated hearing Rachmaninoff other than the vastly more popular Second and Third Concertos and the Paganini Rhapsody. 

Following intermission the pianist attacked Prokofiev’s D-Flat Major Concerto, the first of his five, and her dry and properly acerbic sound could be heard more clearly than the Rachmaninoff through Prokofiev’s lean orchestral texture. Another surprise was when Ms. Kern unexpectedly inserted small tempo changes and accented bass notes that were artistic and delightfully un-Prokofiev, so different from the composer’s directions for an energetic “mechanical” meter. Her skips and long left-hand crossed notes were always accurate in a work that demands just the right amount of percussive accents and fetching momentum. The applause was loud and long 

It’s difficult to upstage a glamorous soloist as Ms. Kern, but I believe it was done in the reading of the 1945 Suite from Stravinsky’s 1910 ballet “The Firebird.” Mr. Ferrandis drew from the ensemble a 23-minute performance of shimmering orchestral virtuosity. The conductor, like Michael Tilson Thomas in San Francisco, has an affinity for this music and the playing in the Suite’s 11 sections was exhilarating. Among the sterling playing was a duo from Ms. Brown and oboist Laura Reynolds; harpist Dan Levitan; flutist Kathleen Lane Reynolds and Stacey Pelinka (doubling on piccolo); the trombone section; bassoonist Carla Wilson; and clarinetists Roy Zajac and Mark Wardlaw. 

Stravinsky’s consummate orchestration was so vivid in Weill’s acoustics (sitting in the balcony) that the involved piano part, often submerged in similar music by Copland and Shostakovich, was distinctly heard. Kymry Esainko was the pianist. 

Responding to the ovation the effervescent Mr. Ferrandis was called back several times, and took palpable pleasure in pointing to orchestra members to stand and acknowledge the acclaim for the exemplary  achievement in Stravinsky’s iridescent Suite. 

March 21, 2015: A Troika to Remember

By: Steve Osborn, March 21, 2015 - Classical Sonoma


Photo: SRS Hornist Meredith Brown

At the beginning of the 20th century, Russia was home to three extraordinary composers--Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev, Stravinsky--whose stars continue to shine. Rachmaninoff carried on the Romantic tradition, Stravinsky tried to annihilate it, and Prokofiev landed somewhere in the middle, clinging to traditional forms while injecting radically new content.

Their differences were well illustrated by the Santa Rosa Symphony in their March 22 concert in Weill Hall. Conductor Bruno Ferrandis chose youthful pieces by each one: the Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 1, written when he was 18, the Prokofiev Piano Concerto No. 1, penned at 20, and the Stravinsky "Firebird" suite, at an ancient 27. Pianist Olga Kern played both the concertos, and Symphony first chairs supplied pervasive solos in the Stravinsky.

Wearing a gorgeous one-strap purple gown, the svelte, blond-haired Kern exuded confidence from the opening notes of the Rachmaninoff, and she got better as the concert unfolded. She sits straight but not rigid, her head slightly bent over the keys, her concentration intense. Her arms move as gracefully as a ballerina's, and her fingers fly over the keyboard with flawless rapidity.

Kern didn't really stand out until the cadenza of the opening movement, where she hit low notes with pinpoint accuracy while playing intricate fast passages in the upper registers. She then made a beautiful transition to a slower tempo, changing the mood in a split second.

While the first two movements of the Rachmaninoff are fairly bland, the third--which he reworked at a later date--offers some musical challenges. These Kern met to a degree, but her dynamic range seemed limited, and her interpretations too straightforward. The movement calls for drama and expressivity, but Kern was mostly subdued, if technically perfect.

The Prokofiev, which began the second half, ratcheted the drama up by several notches. The memorable opening phrase, with its strong accent at the top of a melodic arch, calls for all-out playing from both orchestra and soloist. Here Kern got more in the mood, playing the many iterations of opening phrase with vigor and the subsequent passages with fierce intensity. While at times hampered by inadequate dynamic contrast, she drove into the final section relentlessly, engaging in an animated call and response with the orchestra. The run-up to the end was truly bravura, and the sustained ovation well deserved.

After the Prokofiev, the orchestra emerged from the shadows to perform the suite from Stravinsky's "Firebird" ballet, a staple of the modern repertoire. Beginning with a six-note figure in the low strings, the suite moves inexorably forward, each section reflecting the action of the ballet. Even without the dancers, one can imagine their motions.

In the "Firebird," with its spiky rhythms and incessant melodic handoffs, all the orchestral parts have to fit exactly for the music to work. The fit in this performance was precise, and hearing the hot-potato phrases skip from woodwinds to brass to strings was a sonic delight. Ferrandis held everyone together with a steady beat that was easy to read.

The "Firebird" unfolds by degrees. Most of the first half is relatively subdued, with frequent solos from first chairs, most memorably the French horn. Horn principal Meredith Brown played each of her solos impeccably, with wonderful tone. The enchanting interplay between soloists and full orchestra came to an abrupt end with a mighty blow to the bass drum. The transition was so effective that several people around me jumped in their seats.

The tempo in the latter part of the suite was often fervid, with Ferrandis leading the charge. The brass,led by principal trumpeter Doug Morton, were especially prominent. The sustained buildup led to a tremendous orchestral chord and an abrupt transition to quietude, marked by a wonderful bassoon solo from principal Carla Wilson. During a subsequent pianissimo tremolo from the strings, the audience sat in pin-drop silence. The final bars, marked by a restatement of the horn solo and principal theme, were nothing short of triumphant, culminating in a thrilling final chord.

The concert was the best of the Symphony's season to date, and their performance of the "Firebird" was exceptional. Another reason for the concert's success was the cogent choice of repertoire. The beginning of the 20th century was a splendid time for music in Russia, and the concert displayed the range and depth of that period. Now if only Ferrandis could assemble a concert with substantial works by three 21st century American composers. Future audiences might find them as innovative and inspiring as their Russian counterparts.

Steve Osborn, a medical writer and editor by day, moonlights as a violist, singer, and music critic.

February 9, 2015: Bandoneon and Orchestra Partner Uneasily in New Concerto

By: Steve Osborn, February 9, 2015 - San Francisco Classical Voice

Left: Bruno Ferrandis, Right: Juan Pablo Jofre

Seeing a bandoneón player in front of a symphony orchestra reminds one of the old joke about a kangaroo walking into a high-priced bar. The bartender says, "We don't get many kangaroos in here," to which the kangaroos replies, "With these prices, I can see why."

Fitting a squeeze-box Argentinian bandoneón – an essential element of tango dance-hall bands – into a classical-music milieu is a bit of a stretch. The two sound-worlds are so fundamentally different that it's hard to imagine how they could intersect. Nonetheless, star Argentinian bandoneónist J.P. Jofre and the Santa Rosa Symphony gave it a whirl on Sunday at Weill Hall in Rohnert Park, premiering a concerto for bandoneón and orchestra by Pablo Ortiz, an Argentinian professor of composition at UC Davis.

The results ranged from the transcendent to the perplexing. In the transcendent corner were a number of arresting passages, usually slow, that allowed the bandoneón's plangent sound to pierce through the orchestral haze. On the perplexing side were passages in which the bandoneón line seemed utterly random, unable to find a thematic center. In the middle of the ring was Jofre, who delivered all his many solos with technical mastery and sensitivity.

Jofre is a striking presence on the stage. Clad in a black leather jacket and wearing white-framed designer glasses, he put his right foot atop a piano stool and placed the bandoneón (essentially a large concertina) on his right knee. The buttons on the instrument activate reeds, which produce a distinctive, often melancholy sound, somewhere between an organ and a harmonica.

The opening movement of Ortiz's concerto steered clear of melancholy. Instead, Jofre opened by noodling rapid notes in his right hand while the orchestra stayed at arm's length. Later in the movement, a slow passage brought the bandoneón's distinctive sound to the fore. Here orchestra and instrument finally meshed.

That union continued in the second movement, which opened with shimmering strings and an evocative solo from Jofre that was both nostalgic and yearning. Things perked up considerably in the concluding movement, with its insistent dance beat, syncopation, and wonderful marimba solos. Jofre joined in with some spectacular playing and intricate passagework.

Called back to the stage by strong applause, Jofre offered a more traditional bandoneón solo for an encore, theCapricho Otoñal by Leopoldo Federico. The contrast with the concerto was striking. The sound was louder, the melody more tender, and the notes more connected, almost slurred. The two pieces did, however, share the same pervasive melancholy that seems inseparable from the instrument's sound.
The remainder of the concert was far more upbeat, from an unexpected preconcert viola solo to the rousing finale of Brahms' Second Symphony. The viola soloist was Aimee Gruen, a member of the Symphony's youth orchestra, who played a selection from Ernest Bloch's Suite Hebraic as part of a fundraising effort for the youth orchestra's upcoming tour of China.

The adult version of the orchestra weighed in next with a sparkling reading of the Danzón No. 2 by Arturo Márquez.  Conductor Bruno Ferrandis held everyone together, although at times his conducting seemed a bit frantic.

The Brahms Symphony No. 2, played after intermission, is not the least bit frantic. Here Ferrandis allowed the majestic themes to rise and fall at a leisurely pace. The opening movement featured outstanding French horn solos by principal Meredith Brown, complemented by a lush sound from the strings.

You expect more rhythmic contrast from the third movement, but again the pace was leisurely. Presto sections verged on Allegro, and the syncopations, while well played, didn't really pop. The fourth began more energetically, with Ferrandis picking up the pace. The ensemble was meticulous, the dynamics well controlled, the drive to the end relentless. 

Steve Osborn, a medical writer and editor by day, moonlights as a violist, singer, and music critic.

January 12, 2015: Mark O'Connor & the Santa Rosa Symphony: Americana with a Flashing Bow

By: Steve Osborn, January 12, 2015 - San Francisco Classical Voice

Mark O’Connor (Left), Michael Christie (Right) photo: Krista Campbell 

Mark O’Connor is an extraordinary fiddler, as he amply demonstrated via his bravura performance with the Santa Rosa Symphony on Sunday afternoon. Whether he is an extraordinary composer is open to debate.

The audience had ample time to judge O’Connor’s compositional skills during the program, half of which was taken up by the outer movements of his lengthy “Fiddle Concerto” and the entirety of his much shorter “Strings and Threads.” The other half went to another American, Aaron Copland, who also mines folk-music material.

O’Connor's writing ranges from the predictable to the sublime. The latter quality was nowhere more evident than in his concerto’s final cadenza, which begins with a plaintive melody that evokes the melancholy of the Appalachians.

Clad in a sharkskin suit, O’Connor first set off the melody with double stops, but then took flight and enveloped the tune with a swirling halo of rapid-fire notes in the upper registers, all played sotto voce (quiet voice). The effect was haunting, even mesmerizing.

The cadenza continued in this vein for quite a while. The passagework got ever trickier, and O'Connor's bow flew ever faster until he suddenly lifted it off the strings and played a two-handed pizzicato with fingers plucking from all directions. Just as abruptly, he disdained the strings and played his instrument as if it were a drum, tapping his fingers everywhere but the fingerboard.

Taken by itself, the cadenza was a musical delight. But it was just one component of the concerto; a substantial work that features a full orchestra — in this case led by guest conductor Michael Christie — and plenty of back and forth with the soloist. Here, O’Connor's skills were less evident. The concerto is essentially a pastiche, with a string of less-than-memorable tunes strung together by O’Connor's instrumental virtuosity, much like Paganini used to do.

O’Connor often tries to develop themes by starting them at the bottom of the scale, then repeating them up a step, then another step, and so forth until reaching an artificial climax at the top. Another favored device is for the soloist to repeat orchestral material with substantial embellishments, playing a bevy of notes when one or two might suffice. This device, which one might call “poly-notalism,” dazzles at first but gets tiresome when every line is filled with hemidemisemiquavers.
On balance, O’Connor’s virtuosity and infectious enthusiasm more than compensated for the concerto’s structural deficiencies. That was even more the case in “Strings and Threads,” an unabashed suite of folk-like tunes written by O’Connor and played by him and his wife Maggie O’Connor, with the orchestra acting as little more than a basso continuo.

Mrs. O’Connor, wearing a gossamer orange gown, proved to be her husband’s match in terms of finger and bow speed, but her sound was more subdued, perhaps because of her violin.

The two took turns playing the beguiling melodies, which more or less trace the history of American folk music, from an ancient-sounding “Fair Dancer Reel” to a swing-based “Sweet Suzanne.” The playing throughout was dazzling and rapid, with occasional ritards during the bluesier numbers.

Copland, like O’Connor, often bases his music on folk material, but his approach is entirely different. Instead of taking the tunes at face value, he strips them to the core and then reassembles the material in his own distinctive voice. The tunes are still in there somewhere, but the composition — be it Billy the Kid or El Salón México — is pure Copland.

Michael Christie, the guest conductor, opened the concert with a competent but somewhat lackluster reading of Billy the Kid, a seven-movement suite drawn from the ballet of the same name. Christie is an unobtrusive leader, with feet solidly planted and arms giving a compact and consistent beat. His technique was helpful for Copland's tricky rhythms and copious syncopation, but it failed to deliver a compelling arc for the entire work.
Orchestra and conductor fared much better in El Salón México, which closed the concert. Here Christie began with an invigorating tempo while maintaining a clean sound. The many brass and woodwind solos emerged from that texture with startling clarity. Even better, the precise beats and carefully observed syncopations created palpable tension as Christie kept driving the orchestra forward.

In El Salón México, the rests are as important as the notes. Instead of creating a fluid line, Copland offers only glimpses, engaging the audience to fill in the gaps. Nothing lands where you think it will, even in the long crescendo to the end. These last few moments gave rise to the best playing of the afternoon. Surely the tensions had to resolve, and they finally did with a triumphant final chord.

Steve Osborn, a medical writer and editor by day, moonlights as a violist, singer, and music critic

December 8, 2014: Symphony's Stravinsky a Wind and Rhythmic Feast

By: Terry McNeill, December 8, 2014 - Classical Sonoma

Santa Rosa Symphony conductor Bruno Ferrandis put together a curious program mix Dec. 8 in Weill Hall that on paper promised a culture clash, but actually delivered a memorable musical experience. Composers often fashion suites from orchestral works, and just as often the shorter suite can be more effective than the complete piece. Stravinsky’s 1920 ballet Pulcinella in the popular abridged form is a familiar concert piece, but the complete work comprised the program’s second half, and it’s far more effective than the Suite from 1935. And in just over forty minutes it was a feast for the Symphony’s ten wind and brass instruments. Soprano Kindra Scharich, tenor Jonathan Smucker and bass Kirk Eichelberger formed the solo trio and sang the parts in an animated but sometimes ungrateful Neapolitan Italian. But the evening’s standout performances came from stellar oboist Laura Reynolds; flutists Kathleen Lane Reynolds and Stacey Pelinka (doubling on piccolo); bassoonists Carla Wilson and Karla Ekholm; and the lone trombone player, Bruce Chrisp. Lovely duets abounded: cello and trombone, bassoon (not always playing together) and oboe-flute. The conductor’s mastery of Stravinsky’s complex rhythms was admirable, and concertmaster Joseph Edelberg played elegant and succinct solos. In the first half the 37-member Augsburg Boys Choir performed six a capella motets and were the chorus for Mozart’s Coronation Mass, K. 317. Though the six selections in German had variety, including antiphonal stage grouping in Praetorius’ Nun komm, der Heiden Heilen, Lassus’ forceful and complex Tui sunt cáeli, et túa est térre and the Philipp Silcher celebratory Christmas song In dulci jubilo, they lacked cumulative dramatic impact. Technically attacks and cutoffs were good but often phrases were choppy and from my balcony seat the high tessitura was at times muddy. The frequent group movements on stage seemed unnecessary and time consuming. Choir Director Reinhard Kammler conducted and was at the piano for a choral encore, the carol “Oh Holy Night,” beginning in English with subsequent stanzas appearing to be in the original French. The ovation from the nearly full Weill audience was loud. Mozart’s short C Major “Coronation” Mass from 1779 concluded the first half in a rousing performance with three boys from the Augsburg group joining Mr. Smucker as the vocal quartet. Occasionally the orchestra covered the Choir and Mr. Ferrandis worked hard with quick eye and baton movements to get a balanced blend of sound. Used as a continuo, the organ was mostly inaudible through four speakers at back stage left, and the real sonic underpinning came from the brass, timpanist Andrew Lewis and four bass viols. With quick tempos and piquant drama the Mass had a thoroughly graceful and Mozartian flair, with beautiful singing in the Benedictus. The unnamed-in-the-program Augsburg boy soprano sang with fervor, but I missed the color and range of a real soprano. Ms. Scharich’s operatic voice would have been a formidable substitute

November 10, 2014: A French Cello Concerto from a Distant World

By: Terry McNeill, November 10, 2014 - Classical Sonoma

Several surprises characterized the Santa Rosa Symphony’s Nov. 10 Weill Hall concert, the first being an almost full house on a Monday night after the same program was heard the two previous days. 

The important surprise was how well the audience liked the thorny Dutilleux cello concerto, Tour un Monde Lointain (A Whole Distant World). It was written for Rostropovich in 1970 and played to the hilt by Swiss cellist soloist Christian Poltéra. It was a courageous program selection by conductor Bruno Ferrandis, especially when surrounded by familiar and sober works by Debussy and Beethoven. 

Taking just under 30 minutes in five movements, the Concerto asks the soloist for pristine high-register bowing, eerie descending slides down the finger board and often projecting a wide vibrato in difficult fingering positions and phrases. Mr. Poltéra mastered the difficulties with seeming ease, playing from score and in sync with Mr. Ferrandis’ exact orchestra control. 

Highlights for me were the duets between concertmaster Jay Zhong and Mr. Poltéra in the fetching lament of the Regard (Gaze) second movement; the novel sound of celesta winding in an out of the percussion lines (marimba, xylophone, bongo drums and triangle); and the interplay between single harp notes and the Symphony’s resonant cello and bass sections. Throughout this wonderful work there are wisps from Shostakovich’s Second Cello Concerto, a contemporary piece to the Dutilleux. But the often hazy and shimmering French composer’s sonority is unique, as was Mr. Poltéra’s softly fading cello tremolo ending. 

Messrs. Poltéra and Ferrandis were recalled three times by an enthusiastic ovation. 

Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony in A Major closed the evening, a four-movement work with the orchestra sharply reduced in size from the two previous compositions. An extended introduction established vehement rhythmic patterns from timpanist Andrew Lewis and the playing everywhere was surefooted, especially in duos between piccolo player Stacey Pelinka and the warm flute of Kathleen Lane Reynolds. 

Though omitting a slow movement, the composer wrote an ebullient scherzo and a demanding Presto third movement that was performed with precision and flair. Bassoonists Carla Wilson and Shawn Jones were heard clearly from my balcony seat, as were two blaring but congruent trumpeters. Mr. Ferrandis kept the Symphony’s momentum going into the wild and swirling finale, deftly balancing the rhythmic definition and taking a tempo that seemed overly fast but oh so right. 

The applause was loud and select members of the Symphony were recognized by the conductor. 

Opening the concert was a delicate and carefully paced performance of Debussy’s Prelude a L’aprés-midi d’un faune (Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun). Though radical in its time, the now familiar work from 1894 is as captivating as any 11-minute work in the literature. After the famous opening flute solo, played alluringly by Kathleen Lane Reynolds, the performance contained virtuosic playing from hornist Meredith Brown, harpist Randall Pratt, clarinetist Roy Zajac, oboist Laura Reynolds and bassoonist Carla Wilson. 

Mr. Ferrandis conducted from score and drew rich and gauzy colors from the strings, especially from the viola section. 

October 25, 2014: Joshua Bell Strads in Santa Rosa

By: Steve Osborn, October 25, 2014 - San Francisco Classical Voice

Since the Green Music Center opened in 2012, Sonoma County has been awash in great violinists. In two short years, the GMC has already hosted Hilary Hahn, Anne Sophie Mutter, Itzhak Perlman, Vadim Repin and Gil Shaham, among other luminaries. On Friday, Joshua Bell joined the list — except he didn't play at the GMC.
Thanks to a colossal scheduling mix-up, Bell and his accompanist Alessio Bax ended up at the Wells Fargo Center, the old home of the Santa Rosa Symphony, which presented Bell's recital as a benefit concert. Thus Bell and his 1713 Stradivarius were relegated to the acoustically defective Wells Fargo stage while the GMC stood empty. In the first half, Bell didn’t much help his own cause. He projected a thin, somewhat superficial tone, bypassing repeated opportunities to dig in and draw more from his Strad. He was more like an ice skater than a pearl diver. Fortunately, that all changed after intermission, when Bell finally broke through and delivered a masterful performance.
The repertoire may have figured into Bell’s transformation. He opened with Schubert’s “Duo” sonata, a lovely piece written when the composer was 20. One would expect Bell to bring new insight and feeling into Schubert’s familiar melodies, but his tempos were middling and his dynamic range was limited, settling mostly into mezzo piano. His technique was of course flawless, and his bowing was superb, but Schubert seemed far away. There was no arch to his performance: the end was the same as the beginning.
The subsequent Grieg sonata in F major — his first, written when he was 22 — was equally dispassionate, although Bell did begin to warm up on his lower strings and to exhibit some body movement other than gentle swaying.
Grieg’s fellow composer Gerhard Schjelderup famously remarked that the first sonata is “the work of a youth who has seen only the sunny side of life.” Bell projected that sunny element, zipping through all manner of treacherous string crossings and flashy runs without breaking a sweat. The sonata, however, never goes much beyond sunny. The main impression is of a series of incompletely developed musical ideas connected by a string of false cadences. As with the Schubert, there was no arch, no forward motion pulling the listener along.
Feeling discouraged, I changed my seat at intermission in the hopes of escaping the HVAC and getting better sound. The new location was much improved, well suited to the new Bell who strolled onstage with Bax after the break and began talking to the audience for the first time. His goal was to introduce the F Minor Prokofiev, one of the great violin sonatas, right up there with Beethoven’s Kreutzer. “In a word,” observed Bell, “this sonata is Death.”
In his brief remarks, Bell condensed the theme of each movement to a single word or phrase, with the first being the Machine; the second, Hell; the third, Heaven; and the last a synthesis, culminating in pianissimo “wind over the grave” violin scales.
This narrative unveiled the arch that Bell had previously lacked. From the opening notes, he and Bax offered palpable drama marked by strong rhythms, an immense dynamic range and razor-sharp intonation. Bell’s double stops in the opening movement were particularly notable, but so were his pizzicato and his relentless runs up and down the fingerboard. It was an authoritative performance, imbued with mystery and insight.
The two musicians chose a deliberate tempo in the second movement, “Hell,” which features a repeated series of down bows on the lower strings — a riveting trope that commands attention. Bell tried to squeeze every last bit of sound out of his Strad, projecting an aura of barely contained fury. That intensity heightened the contrast to the quiescent “Heaven” movement, which emerged out of Bell’s violin like a floating cloud of sound. He leaned far forward as if to shape the cloud, his instrumental voice never rising above a whisper.
The finale began as a furious rush, recapitulating previous themes and introducing new ones. The “wind over the grave” was much in evidence, as was a series of beguiling chords. The most gripping passage, however, was the last: long notes formed into a transcendent phrase.
The Prokofiev sonata was more than enough, but Bell offered two encores: the Rachmaninov Vocalise and Sarasate’s Introduction and Tarantella, an over-the-top showpiece that was simply astounding.
Now that Bell has shown what he can do in dire circumstances, one can only hope that he will return to Sonoma County as soon as possible, this time in a better venue.

Steve Osborn, a medical writer and editor by day, moonlights as a violist, singer, and music critic.

October 12, 2014: Miraculous Bartok at the Santa Rosa Symphony

By: Steve Osborn, October 12, 2014 - Classical Sonoma

The Santa Rosa Symphony saved the best for last in its Oct. 12 Sunday afternoon concert, much like a home baseball team that scores the winning run in the bottom of the ninth. They led off with a tentative but ultimately captivating reading of Richard Strauss's "Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks," followed with a solid but subdued performance of Beethoven's "Emperor" piano concerto, hit their stride with Wagner's "Tannhaüser" overture, and finally scored with Bartok's magnificent "The Miraculous Mandarin."

That final work, written for a scandalous ballet, was easily the most riveting of the afternoon. Beginning with a propulsive opening in the second violins, the score is one long, tense buildup to a bloody and anguished climax. In the ballet, three criminals force a prostitute to lure customers in order to rob them. Their plans are thwarted by a mysterious mandarin who falls in love with the prostitute and repels their attacks.

Musically, this lurid plot induces restless energy and seething tension. The most prominent musical device is a sharply syncopated melodic line over a perpetually shifting drone. The violas played the first such line with powerful unison and great expression. They were followed by the cellos and then a series of bewitching solos from the clarinets and trombones.

The texture was wonderfully dense, with each section of the orchestra playing in a range of timbres. Conductor Bruno Ferrandis urged everyone forward at a feverish pitch, leading to a shattering ending and sustained applause. The only regret was that no dancers were on hand to enact Bartok's remarkable score.

The Bartok was a welcome and unexpected end to an afternoon of crowd favorites, beginning with Strauss's oft-performed tone poem. The playing here was precise but too deliberate to bring out the humor of the story, which revolves around Till's various pranks and his ultimate trip to the gallows. Ferrandis seemed a bit stiff in his gestures, a little too measured. A more relaxed approach might have induced more flexible playing and stronger dramatic contrasts.

By the march to the gallows, however, both Ferrandis and the orchestra had warmed up, and the playing was resplendent. The coda was magical.

Swift on the heels of Strauss came Beethoven's Fifth Concerto with the Russian soloist Yevgeny Sudbin. He is a technically dazzling pianist in his thirties who is all business. His basic posture is to bend his head forward and hunch into the piano so that it occupies his entire field of vision. You would never know what he's playing based on his body language--he barely moves, except for his hands, which hang suspended in mid-air.

Sudbin uses lots of pedal but has an exceedingly delicate touch. His trills are rock-solid and expressive, a talent he used repeatedly throughout the concerto. Trills are so prominent in the Emperor that they become a method of sustaining notes, almost like bowing across a string or breathing into a horn.

The playing was faultless but ultimately somewhat timid. Sudbin didn't project as much as he could have, and his climactic moments were perfunctory, particularly at the end of the concerto where his final triumphant run up the keyboard seemed to peter out. Nonetheless, it was an accomplished performance, and it earned a standing ovation.

Ovations were also in order for the student musicians from the Symphony's top-tier youth orchestra who joined their elder colleagues after intermission to play Wagner's familiar overture to the opera “Tannhaüser.” The opening was magisterial and the mood triumphant, with Ferrandis conducting in sweeping gestures. This being Wagner, the horns were a central feature, but the strings also had their moments, particularly the violas, whose part was unusually prominent.

"Tannhaüser" is Wagner at his most commanding and assured. The players really leaned into their lines, and the resonant themes stood out in sharp relief. It was great theater, and it bodes well for the future that so many young musicians were able to join in.

October 12, 2014: Wide-ranging season opener a hit

By: Gabe Meline, October 12, 2014 - The Press Democrat

The Santa Rosa Symphony opened its 2014-2015 season Saturday night at the Green Music Center in a stellar performance titled “Heroes and Legends.” Launching its third year in residence at the Sonoma State venue, the orchestra proved once again the hall’s impeccable acoustics in a dynamic, dramatic program.
Guest pianist Yevgeny Sudbin delivered the night’s centerpiece, Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5, the “Emperor” concerto. Yet in the sheer variety of the remaining pieces, maestro Bruno Ferrandis placed himself in a familiar position. Even more than his predecessor Jeffrey Kahane, Ferrandis has a penchant for stringing together unexpected, disparate pieces in the same evening.

A vivacious opening of the Richard Strauss tone poem “Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks” set the pace for the night. In sometimes frantic rondo form, the tone poem utilized the orchestra’s low, brawny brass and percussion to great effect, darting the mood between tragedy and lightness. Ferrandis, an avowed aficionado of Strauss’ tone poems, smiled broadly at the conclusion.

Subdin, the award-winning 34-year-old Russian-born pianist, took the stage next for the fan favorite. The “Emperor” concerto benefited from Subdin’s sound judgment, which avoided the syrupy, gossamer touch other pianists employ in certain softer passages of Beethoven’s well-known work. Though he struggled to find his touch in the early stages of the concerto’s first movement, Subdin seemed to rise from the bench both physically and psychically at its finish.

Taking on a newfound fluid expressiveness in the second movement, Subdin’s artistry became a balanced mix of technique and emotion. Whether holding out lengthy trills or flying up and down the keyboard in long runs, the performance was an act of bringing Beethoven’s music to life instead of milking the life out of it. A well-earned standing ovation followed.

The program’s second half brought two more pieces, Wagner’s “Tannhauser” overture and Bartok’s Suite from “The Miraculous Mandarin,” that seemed, on paper, to be so unrelated as to be selections pulled from a hat. And yet Ferrandis and the orchestra wrested the requisite excitement from each of the pieces to sustain the consistent theme of drama throughout the evening.

This was especially present during “Tannhauser’s” overture, a musical push-pull between good and evil. The orchestra came together as a unit to illustrate the tension up to final passage, charging with elated horns and cascading strings. The only way more triumph could have been present is if an armored gladiator had emerged on a horse, galloping down the aisles of the hall to the stage.

As a closer that started after 10 p.m., “Miraculous Mandarin” kept the audience awake. A musical imagining of a struggle between three thieves and a prostitute, the horn-heavy piece periodically jolted, prodded and punched the air throughout the hall.

After a series of terrifying sound clusters and propulsive drums, the orchestra came to a sudden halt, capping the evening to rapturous applause.

The wide-ranging program raises a larger philosophical question about context, one asked every time a radio programmer chooses the next track, a teenager makes a music playlist or a DJ drops the needle on the record at a club: how is one piece of music elevated or diminished by that which comes both immediately before and afterward?

In ‘Heroes and Legends,’ which repeats at 3 p.m. Sunday and 8 p.m. Monday, the answer was high drama. Once again, Ferrandis and the Santa Rosa Symphony proved that traditional coherence among a program’s pieces is not necessarily a prerequisite for excellence.

2013 - 2014 Season

May 5, 2014: SR Symphony Season Finale Pushes Limits

SR Symphony Season Finale Pushes Limits
May 5, 2014 - Press Democrat

April 1, 2014: Going North for High Quality Sounds

Going North for High Quality Sounds
April 1, 2014 - artssf

March 23, 2014: A Tour de Force of Sonic Splendor

A Tour de Force of Sonic Splendor
March 23, 2014 - Classical Sonoma

February 16, 2014: Shining the Light on the Vikings at Santa Rosa Symphony

Shining the Light on the Vikings at Santa Rosa Symphony
February 16, 2014 - San Francisco Classical Voice

October 13, 2014: Pipa Passes, with Flying Colors

Pipa Passes, with Flying Colors
October 13, 2014 - Classical Sonoma

December 9, 2013: Bernstein, Brandes, and an Inspiring Mass from Santa Rosa Symphony

Bernstein, Brandes, and an Inspiring Mass from Santa Rosa Symphony
December 9, 2013 - San Francisco Classical Voice

November 11, 2013: Well Mixed, Still Spicy

Well Mixed, Still Spicy
November 11, 2013 - Press Democrat

October 6, 2013: SR Symphony Opens Season

SR Symphony Opens Season
October 6, 2013 - Press Democrat

2012 - 2013 Season

May 12, 2013: Symphony Shines in Season Finale

Symphony Shines in Season Finale
May 12, 2013 - Press Democrat

May 14, 2013: A Perfect 10 for the Tenth

A Perfect 10 for the Tenth
May 14, 2013 - San Francisco Classical Voice

March 18, 2013: Range of Emotions Sweep through Weill Hall

Range of Emotions Sweep through Weill Hall
March 18, 2013 - San Francisco Classical Voice

February 2, 2013: Playing Hearts: It's Zajac in Spades

Playing Hearts: It's Zajac in Spades
February 2, 2013 - San Francisco Classical Voice

December 15, 2012: Intensely, Beautifully, Devotedly: Bach's B Minor Mass

Intensely, Beautifully, Devotedly: Bach's B Minor Mass
December 15, 2012 - San Francisco Classical Voice

December 3, 2012: Titans of Opera, Christina Major: Cup Runneth Over

Titans of Opera, Christina Major: Cup Runneth Over
December 3, 2012 - San Francisco Classical Voice

November 5, 2012: Santa Rosa Symphony: Hear and Now

Santa Rosa Symphony: Hear and Now
November 5, 2012 - San Francisco Classical Voice

November 4, 2012: Santa Rosa Symphony Review: French pianist Collard an old hand in new digs

Santa Rosa Symphony Review: French pianist Collard an old hand in new digs
November 4, 2012 - Press Democrat

October 10, 2012: Santa Rosa Symphony: Now That's a Housewarming

Santa Rosa Symphony: Now That's a Housewarming
October 10, 2012 - San Francisco Classical Voice

October 9, 2012: Santa Rosa Symphony Review: A New Era

Santa Rosa Symphony Review: A New Era
October 9, 2012 - SF Gate (San Francisco Chronicle)

October 9, 2012: Electronics and Symphony; Campion's Premiere Work Inspired by Gasoline Engines

Electronics and Symphony; Campion's Premiere Work Inspired by Gasoline Engines
October 9, 2012 -

October 6, 2012: SR Symphony Revs Up Season with Powerful Opener

SR Symphony Revs Up Season with Powerful Opener
October 6, 2012 - Classical Sonoma

October 3, 2012: Big League Music Hall in Wine Country

Big League Music Hall in Wine Country
October 3, 2012 - New York Times

October 2, 2012: "Consecration of the House" Weill Hall Opens

"Consecration of the House" Weill Hall Opens
October 2, 2012 - San Francisco Classical Voice

September 30, 2012: Green Grows the Superb Weill Hall in Sonoma

Green Grows the Superb Weill Hall in Sonoma
September 30, 2012 - San Francisco Classical Voice

September 30, 2012: Review: SR Symphony Triumphs in First Inning at Green Music Center

Review: SR Symphony Triumphs in First Inning at Green Music Center
September 30, 2012 - Classical Sonoma

2011 - 2012 Season

May 14, 2012: Review: Symphony Bids Farewell to Wells Fargo Center: Maestro's Brother joins in last SR concerts before move to Sonoma State University

Review: Symphony Bids Farewell to Wells Fargo Center: Maestro's Brother joins in last SR concerts before move to Sonoma State University
May 14, 2012 - Press Democrat

February 11, 2012: Review: Horn of Plenty

Review: Horn of Plenty
February 11, 2012 - Classical Sonoma

January 24, 2012: Review: Kahane's Triumphant Return to Santa Rosa

Review: Kahane's Triumphant Return to Santa Rosa
January 24, 2012 - San Francisco Classical Voice

January 23, 2012: Review: Kahane wows the crowd at SR Symphony performance

Review: Kahane wows the crowd at SR Symphony performance
January 23, 2012 - Press Democrat

December 12, 2011: Review: Orchestra United at the Santa Rosa Symphony

Review: Orchestra United at the Santa Rosa Symphony
December 12, 2011 - San Francisco Classical Voice

December 11, 2011: Review: Santa Rosa Symphony performs German Requiem

Review: Santa Rosa Symphony performs German Requiem
December 11, 2011 - Press Democrat

December 1, 2011: Review: Where were you at 22? Bach and Handel 1707

Review: Where were you at 22? Bach and Handel 1707
December 1, 2011 - Classical Sonoma

November 12, 2011: Review: Alive and Free but Hard to Understand

Review: Alive and Free but Hard to Understand
November 12, 2011 - San Francisco Classical Voice

October 17, 2011: Review: Santa Rosa Symphony opens season on strong note

Review: Santa Rosa Symphony opens season on strong note
October 17, 2011 - Press Democrat

2010 - 2011 Season

May 9, 2011: Review: Small Hands, Big Heart

Review: Small Hands, Big Heart
May 9, 2011 - San Francisco Classical Voice

January 14, 2011: Review: Lukewarm Mozart, then hot Mahler at Santa Rosa Symphony concert

Review: Lukewarm Mozart, then hot Mahler at Santa Rosa Symphony concert
January 14, 2011 - Press Democrat

January 14, 2011: Review: Mozart, Mahler Burning Bright

Review: Mozart, Mahler Burning Bright
January 14, 2011 - San Francisco Classical Voice

January 24, 2011: Review: Dynamic Diemecke leads buoyant Rodrigo and dissonant Chavez at SR Symphony concert

Review: Dynamic Diemecke leads buoyant Rodrigo and dissonant Chavez at SR Symphony concert
January 24, 2011 - Classical Sonoma

January 4, 2011: Review: Bach's Cantatas soar under Worth's direction in Windsor Christmas concert

Review: Bach's Cantatas soar under Worth's direction in Windsor Christmas concert
January 4, 2011 - Classical Sonoma

December 19, 2010: Review: A touching tribute, a century later

Review: A touching tribute, a century later
December 19, 2010 - artssf

December 5, 2010: Review: Holiday music with a twist

Review: Holiday music with a twist
December 5, 2010 - Classical Sonoma

December 5, 2010: Review: French songs and an original work in holiday concert

Review: French songs and an original work in holiday concert
December 5, 2010 - Press Democrat

November 8, 2010: Review: Transcendent Liszt from Lisitsa

Review: Transcendent Liszt from Lisitsa
November 8, 2010 - Classical Sonoma

October 11, 2010: Review: SR Symphony opens season Italian style

Review: SR Symphony opens season Italian style
October 11, 2010 - Press Democrat

October 9, 2010: Review: Overture without Opera

Review: Overture without Opera
October 9, 2010 - Classical Sonoma

2009 - 2010 Season

May 11, 2010: Review: Sins, Swans, and Dons in Santa Rosa

Review: Sins, Swans, and Dons in Santa Rosa
May 11, 2010 - San Francisco Classical Voice

May 10, 2010: Review: Lemper, SR Symphony Shine

Review: Lemper, SR Symphony Shine
May 10, 2010 - Press Democrat

March 22, 2010: Review: Where Comes the Sun?

Review: Where Comes the Sun?
March 22, 2010 - San Francisco Classical Voice

February 15, 2010: Review:Three Hits and a Miss at SRSO Concert

Review:Three Hits and a Miss at SRSO Concert
February 15, 2010 - Classical Sonoma

February 13, 2010: Review: Pianist Berenika Shines

Review: Pianist Berenika Shines
February 13, 2010 - Press Democrat

January 23, 2010: Review:The Red and the White

Review:The Red and the White
January 23, 2010 - Classical Sonoma

2008 - 2009 Season

December 8, 2009: Review: We Have Ignition Beethoven's Ninth

Review: We Have Ignition Beethoven's Ninth
December 8, 2009 - San Francisco Classical Voice

December 7, 2009: Review: Beethoven draws a diverse crowd

Review: Beethoven draws a diverse crowd
December 7, 2009 - Press Democrat

November 10, 2009: Review: What Dvorak Knew

Review: What Dvorak Knew
November 10, 2009 - San Francisco Classical Voice

October 12, 2009: Review: Kahane Rocks the House in Symphony Opener

Review: Kahane Rocks the House in Symphony Opener
October 12, 2009 - Press Democrat

October 10, 2009: Review: 10 Points for Kahane, Ferrandis in SR Symphony Opener

Review: 10 Points for Kahane, Ferrandis in SR Symphony Opener
October 10, 2009 - Classical Sonoma

October 9, 2009: Preview: Kahane Returns for Santa Rosa Symphony Opener

Preview: Kahane Returns for Santa Rosa Symphony Opener
October 9, 2009 - Press Democrat

May 17, 2009: Review: Santa Rosa Symphony Ends Season with a Bang

Review: Santa Rosa Symphony Ends Season with a Bang
May 17, 2009 - Press Democrat

May 16, 2009: Review: Turanga-lite

Review: Turanga-lite
May 16, 2009 - San Francisco Classical Voice

April 21, 2009: Review: The Suite Smell of Success

Review: The Suite Smell of Success
April 21, 2009 - San Francisco Classical Voice

February 24, 2009: Review: Shifting the Center of Attention

Review: Shifting the Center of Attention
February 24, 2009 - San Francisco Classical Voice

February 23, 2009: Review: A Little Night Music

Review: A Little Night Music
February 23, 2009 - Press Democrat

January 27, 2009: Review: Well Within the Box

Review: Well Within the Box
January 27, 2009 - San Francisco Classical Voice

Contact Us

Santa Rosa Symphony
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