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2017-2018 Season

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.

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