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2018-2019 Season

January 15, 2019: A Slice of Heaven from the Santa Rosa Symphony

By: , January 15, 2019 - Steve Osborn, San Francisco Classical Voice

Under its vibrant new music director, Francesco Lecce-Chong, the Santa Rosa Symphony this past Sunday offered a nearly perfect afternoon of Mozart (Symphony No. 40) and Mahler (Symphony No. 4). While the two works share a common digit, the only element uniting them is genius. They made for a dazzling couple.

As if to herald these two masterworks, Lecce-Chong opened the program with two antiphonal brass fanfares by Toru Takemitsu: Signals from Heaven I (Day) and Signals from Heaven II (Night). For the Day Signal, six brass players occupied stage right, while another half-dozen defended stage left, with Lecce-Chong conducting in the middle and nobody else on stage. In the fashion of Gabrielli, the antiphon was slow-moving and filled with echo effects, building steadily to a triumphant chord. For the Night Signal, the players rearranged themselves and intoned a leisurely series of descending figures underneath a trumpet solo, again building to a sustained chord. The playing was excellent throughout.

As the rest of the orchestra filed in for the Mozart, the stage manager removed Lecce-Chong’s music stand. Lecce-Chong conducted the remainder of the concert from memory and, for the Mozart, without a baton.

The lack of a score or a baton allowed Lecce-Chong to engage closely with the orchestra, which responded in kind. They started the Allegro molto first movement at a brisk pace, with solid unisons from the various string sections. Their bows moved as one, and their intonation was superb. Lecce-Chong was a model of restraint, conducting with his head as much as his hands.

The second movement is marked Andante, but Lecce-Chong’s tempo was more like Allegretto, with sharply etched articulations and a playful spirit. Freed of the baton, Lecce-Chong used both arms almost equally, indicating long phrases rather than simply beating time. The Minuet third movement was likewise brisk, with an almost militaristic drive. The Trio section offered a brief respite, but the Minuet returned even more fierce and determined, with the players digging deeply into their strings.

The Allegro finale was a sprint to the finish, with more great unisons from the strings, even on the trickiest passages. Lecce-Chong propelled the orchestra forward with ever-more dramatic movements — spreading his arms wide and punching the air in front of him like a boxer. For all that, the high points were the sudden rests, where the entire orchestra paused before launching back into the fray. The ending was electric.

Lecce-Chong took advantage of the interlude between the Takemitsu and the Mozart to explain the background for Mahler’s Fourth, which he described as “a child’s view of heaven.” The child in this case has passed away, so he or she is staring at the abundance of heaven, which is mostly blue sky with an occasional storm cloud.

Lecce-Chong’s remarks proved quite helpful for approaching the symphony, which offers a dizzying array of themes interspersed with bits of song and sharp-edged solos. Armed with a baton but still scoreless, Lecce-Chong used a light touch to smooth the many transitions in the opening movement. The relationships between the orchestral sections were so complex that the piece sounded like chamber music for, say, 18 voices: an octadecatet. Despite the complexity, each voice was distinctive, nowhere more so than in the wonderful French-horn solo at the end, played beautifully by principal horn Meredith Brown.

Much of the focus in the Scherzo second movement was on concertmaster Joe Edelberg, who alternated his regular violin with another tuned a full step higher. He used the latter to lead a ghostly dance of death, in stark contrast to the otherwise sunny orchestration. His recurring pizzicatos were particularly chilling.

Lecce-Chong waited for full silence before unveiling the transcendent third movement, a quiescent Adagio that begins in the cellos and basses and gradually spreads upward through the orchestra. Despite the slow speed, the forward motion was ineluctable, bringing a hushed expectancy to the audience, which seemed to hang on to every note. Lecce-Chong never lost the thread as the theme and variations increased in urgency and emotion, ultimately exploding into triple-forte and then diminishing back to the opening dynamic. The impression was of floating in interstellar space.

As the Adagio faded out, the soprano Maria Plette entered from stage right to sing the Mahler song that inspired the entire symphony: “Das himmlische Leben” (The Heavenly Life). Unfortunately, the text of the song wasn’t printed in the program, nor was it projected on a screen, so the audience was left to its own devices to figure out what Plette was singing. I was able to track down the text later, but I regret not having it at the time, because it adds significantly to the experience of the symphony. The key line is, “There is just no music on earth that can compare to ours.”

Setting the text problems aside, Plette sang adequately but not brilliantly. Her diction was good, and she projected well, but her vibrato was often too wide, and her voice could be sharp-edged. She did improve as she went along, however, and the orchestra continued to play brilliantly, making the final lines ring true: “The angelic voices gladden our senses, so that all awaken for joy.”

Steve Osborn, a children's writer by day, moonlights as a violist and music critic.

January 14, 2019: Review: New Santa Rosa Symphony music director proves mettle at concert

By: , January 14, 2019 - Diane Peterson, The Press Democrat

A series of question marks has hovered above the Santa Rosa Symphony over the past year. How quickly will its youthful, new music director, Francesco Lecce-Chong, make his mark during his first season with the orchestra?

 Will the fifth conductor in the symphony’s 91-year history be able to live up to the hype that he offers “the whole package” as a musical collaborator and community builder?

Will he be able to re-create the magic of his try-out concerts in October 2017?

Saturday night, in his third and final concert set of the season at the Green Music Center, Lecce-Chong left no doubt that the magic of his debut was no fluke. Even without a romantic warhorse like Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4, he proved his mettle by pouring new life into Mozart’s tragic Symphony No. 40 and artfully molding the pacing and phrasing of Mahler’s idyllic Symphony No. 4.

Both, it should be noted, were conducted without a score — the one-hour-long Mahler with a baton, the 35-minute Mozart with hands only. Like all of the classical music concerts this season, the program was planned by Lecce-Chong’s predecessor, Bruno Ferrandis, known for his love of dramatic contrasts within concerts.

Despite entering the season as a pinch-hitter, Lecce-Chong, 31, poured his heart and soul into the game, hitting a home run with both works. The orchestra sounded splendid — from individual solos to overall ensemble — and met the thorny challenges of each work with athletic finesse and obvious enthusiasm.

The late symphony by Mozart juxtaposes sunny gentility with rough fury, while the early symphony by Mahler, considered the conflicted composer’s lightest and most accessible, offers a strange blend of transcendent beauty undermined by grotesque humor. It is Mahler, after all.

Even before the season started, Lecce-Chong knew this program would push him and the orchestra to the limit and force them to take their music-making to a new level. But he didn’t back down.

“That’s a beast of a program,” he said in an interview this fall. “I’m glad I was available for that week.”
Mozart is always a litmus test for players, who must perform the most difficult, transparent music with utter relaxation and “seeming” ease. With Lecce-Chong at the helm, the music never seemed rushed — from the elegant first movement to the furious finale — even when traveling at high velocity.

But the orchestra really hit its rhythmic groove in the second movement, a lilting Andante that Lecce-Chong directed with a light but precise touch. In the steely third movement, the orchestra started to break loose from the transparent Mozart mold with a bigger sound, and by the jaunty finale. The pregnant pauses, fierce attacks and dynamic contrasts made the work sound groundbreaking and new.

Mahler’s Symphony No. 4, last performed by the symphony in 1999, was not a natural fit for Lecce-Chong, who has admitted he connects with the more exciting and dramatic Symphonies No. 1 and 5 of Mahler, which he has conducted before. Symphony No. 4 is a lovely little fairy tale, with occasional nightmarish moments, that demands delicacy and transparency and risks putting the audience to sleep if it is not paced correctly.

It is a tribute to the orchestra’s hard work and preparation that even the children in the audience stayed awake for this hourlong work, performed after intermission. Most people leaned forward in their seats to hear every wailing clarinet line, bellowing horn blast and plucky bass pizzicato.

Mahler’s Symphony No. 4 opens in a carefree manner, with sleigh bells and graceful, Viennese melodies, then turns grotesque in the scherzo, as an unusually tuned solo violin — played with verve by concertmaster Joe Edelberg — portrays a skeleton playing the fiddle (“Death”) and leads a danse macabre.

Consolation arrives, however, in the beautiful, long phrases of the third movement. Under Lecce-Chong’s baton, the melodies seamlessly rose and fell, dissolved and coalesced again with feathery transparence, leading to a sudden explosion of horns and trumpets. This prepares the audience for the fourth movement, a short, simple song about a child’s naive view of heaven.

Soprano Marie Plette did not give an entirely persuasive interpretation of the poem. It was difficult to hear her above the orchestra, but the unfinale-like finale nevertheless concluded with a natural, easy flow. Like all fairy tales, it seemed to lure eyelids into a blissful sleep, in a good way.

To open the concert, a dozen members of the brass section performed two antiphonal fanfares from Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu: “Day Signal” and “Night Signal.” The short works provided a pleasant curtain-opener, with the beautifully blended tones of the brass reverberating impressively throughout the sensitive hall.

Afterward, Lecce-Chong spoke to the audience, thanking them for their support, highlighting concerts to come (including a family concert he will lead in April) and giving a short introduction to Mahler’s 4th Symphony. He recounted how the audience at the premiere met the first two movements with hissing, then offered tepid applause after the third. “The audience was kind of done with Mahler at the time,” he said.

Obviously, we are just beginning our adventure with Lecce-Chong, and it will be exciting to see the places he will take us in the future. If this program is any indication, he’s not afraid to take a few risks.
The Santa Rosa Symphony will repeat this concert program at 7:30 p.m. Monday at the Green Music Center’s Weill Hall.

December 5, 2018: Santa Rosa Symphony Heralds the Holidays

By: , December 5, 2018 - Steve Osborn, San Francisco Classical Voice

Antlers are typical headgear during the holiday season, but the ushers and one bassist at the Santa Rosa Symphony concert on Dec. 2 sported apples atop their heads. The red fruits were festive but perplexing until the orchestra began Rossini’s “William Tell” overture, at which point even the dull-witted reviewer made the connection.

Instead of having Tell stride on stage and shoot the apple off his son’s head, the orchestra offered a bull’s-eye performance that split the overture right down the middle. Audiences of a certain age are accustomed to hearing only the latter part of the piece, where the Lone Ranger gallops across the screen shouting “Hi ho, Silver,” but there’s much more to it than that.

Principal cellist Adelle-Akika Kearns opened with a beautifully played solo, accompanied at times by four of her cello colleagues. Her tone was gorgeous, her vibrato smooth, and her long trills outstanding. Next came solid work from the trombones, a lovely flute and English horn duet, and the heraldic trumpet entry that brings on the Lone Ranger. Guest conductor Jayce Ogren set a furious pace but proved adept at controlling dynamics and eliciting meticulous playing despite all the frenzy. Boisterous applause followed the rousing performance.

So far so good, but then the Swiss legend gave way to an English melancholic of far less heroic proportions. Berlioz’s Harold in Italy, based on Lord Byron’s semi-autobiographical poem “Childe Harold,” is a symphony masquerading as a concerto. The viola, ably played here by Nokuthula Ngwenyama, takes on the role of Harold observing various Italian tableaux. While the viola part is sometimes of interest, it is nowhere near as virtuosic or impassioned as true viola concertos by Bartok, Walton, and other modern composers.

Ngwenyama spent most of her time playing long notes or arpeggios, with very few dazzling runs or assertive solos. She also hampered her stage presence by playing from a computerized score, which she kept advancing with a foot pedal. In addition, Berlioz’s awkward orchestration often had her doubling lines played by other orchestral sections, particularly the French horns. Her strings vibrated and her bow moved, but the horns drowned her out.

The viola is relatively prominent in the first two movements, but it begins to fade out in the third, deferring to the English horn for a prominent solo. By the fourth movement, the viola plays almost nothing except for a brief passage near the end, all of which entails a considerable amount of standing around.

Perhaps a better way to perform Harold in Italy would be to place the soloist in the principal viola spot inside the orchestra. The soloist would still be the main character, but only within a larger context that hides the long stretches of viola silence.

The soloists in Vivaldi’s Gloria also did a fair amount of sitting around, but that is de rigueur in works for orchestra, chorus, and soloists. In a gesture to Baroque performance practice, the orchestra was reduced to 30 players, all but four of them strings. (The non-strings were a trumpet, an oboe, a bassoon, and a small organ.) In contrast, the chorus remained at full strength, with about 70 singers from Sonoma State and Santa Rosa Junior College arrayed on the stage behind the orchestra.

The numbers worked to the choir’s advantage, allowing them to be heard clearly at all times. They enhanced their clarity by careful enunciation of the Latin text and by blending well as a group. The bass, tenor, alto and soprano sections were evenly balanced, and nobody stuck out.

The choir’s singing in the opening “Gloria in excelsis Deo” was sprightly and vivacious, and their performance of the subsequent “Et in terra pax” was restful and calm. Ogren did an admirable job of balancing the singers and the instrumentalists, offering clear signals and expressive hand gestures.

The solos began with a wonderful rendition of the “Laudamus te” soprano duet by Sonoma State alumnae Jennifer Thuman and Esther Rayo. Their voices were radiant, and they projected well in the large space. After another chorus, Thuman followed up with a sublime “Domine Deus” displaying a well-controlled vibrato and solid trills. The final soloist, mezzo-soprano Chris Fritzche, also impressed in another “Domine Deus” and the penultimate “Qui sedes.”

The chorus had the last word with a rousing “Quoniam tu solus sanctus,” leading to an emphatic and life-affirming “Amen.” The applause was long and loud.

Steve Osborn, a children's writer by day, moonlights as a violist and music critic.

October 8, 2018: Ashen Community and Its Culture: Renewal!

By: , October 8, 2018 - Paul Hertelendy, Arts SF

The Phoenix of the Moment Leads the Way
 
Inspiration from the Santa Rosa Symphony is smoothing the long winding trek back to a vibrant life in fire-wracked Sonoma County.
 
Music’s healing force has been much needed, particularly for those imperiled symphony-goers who fled for their lives at 3 AM to escape the Tubbs wildfire and experienced destruction of  their dearest belongings. Some 40 died. To mark the one-year anniversary on the first weekend of October when the renewal concerts were held, all flags in the region flew at half-staff.
 
The phoenix of the moment was the new symphony Music Director Francesco Lecce-Chong, whose concert a year ago was canceled by the chaotic fire devastation. His concert program now brimmed with hope: the great Brahms Violin Concerto, and Beethoven’s Fifth.
 
More than a concert, this was a catharsis.
 
The orchestra also commissioned a work to mark the renewal, Paul Dooley’s eloquent “Sonoma Strong.” It starts with silence, then strong wind sounds (via whirling flexible wind pipes) that few 2017 survivors will ever forget. Instruments in ones and twos enter in, leading to a web of reflection, consolation and aftermath serenity. The slow route back takes shape ever stronger, ever livelier, bursting forth with joyful runs on mallet instruments and surging full-force brass leading to an effusive finale. This work achieves for Dooley what “Egmont” achieved for Beethoven. It was a whole tone poem pressed into a concise and profoundly memorable  six minutes by the fortyish composer, a local figure now on the University of Michigan faculty.
 
If not obvious before, conductor Lecce-Chong’s success with this orchestra culminated in a brilliant Beethoven Fifth Symphony, itself a metaphor for triumph emerging from darkness. He made this highly motivated orchestra sound even better than it is, eliciting gorgeous woodwind ensembles and mellow cello-section sweeps of sound. Among the solos, it was hard to top the soulful oboe of Laura Reynolds.          
 
Lecce-Chong avoided the trap of the opening phrase doted on by oldtime maestros who turned a small but ever-growing di-di-di-dah phrase into thunderous “blows of fate” that Beethoven’s score never sought. He followed the score, even in that unharmonized strings-and-bass-notes dissonance opening the finale which doubtless sent early Viennese listeners right up the wall. The finale’s triumphal march  unfolded in all its major-key richness, the coda to a concert’s message of new spirit and new resolve.
 
On any other night, the French-born New York violin soloist Arnaud Sussman would have merited the headlines for his supremely polished Brahms Violin Concerto, lyrical to the core.
 
The concert opened with Ellen Taaffe Zwilich’s “Celebration,” a brazen brassy curtain-raiser  built largely around a fast-repeated two-note phrase.
 
Lecce-Chong has emphasized adjusting musician deployment to produce optimum sound. He could well start with the kettle drums, which from their elevated site are loud enough to call forth the horse brigade.

MUSIC NOTES—The calm in the hall Oct. 7 belied the widespread trauma of a year earlier. Both the couple sitting next to us as well as Board Chair Jamei Haswell who made the concert introductions had had to flee ahead of their homes going up in smoke during the night.… Incoming Music Director Lecce-Chong, 31, will lead three of the seven concert sets this season.  

October 8, 2018: Lecce-Chong proves his mettle with Santa Rosa Symphony

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

Francesco Lecce-Chong was handed two warhorses for his debut as conductor of the Santa Rosa Symphony, and he rode them both to thrilling victory. For the first win, Brahms’s Violin Concerto, he owed much to soloist Arnaud Sussmann, but for the other triumph, Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, he and his musicians deserve full honors.

Beethoven’s Fifth is the primary source of the modern symphony, the achievement against which all others are measured. Not a note is wasted within its tightly reasoned structure, and all of them need to fall into place at exactly the right time. Aside from one negligible false entry, the Santa Rosa players fulfilled that duty to perfection, culminating in several spine-tingling passages that rose far above the notes on the page.

Lecce-Chong, whose final audition concert with the Santa Rosa Symphony was cancelled by last year’s firestorms, introduced Beethoven’s masterwork by observing that “Beethoven’s Fifth is about us” because it celebrates the human spirit and our triumph over adversity. In that context, the performance became even more meaningful, offering not only closure for a local tragedy, but also buoyant optimism for the future.

A large part of that optimism was due to Lecce-Chong’s presence at the podium throughout the concert. He conducted flawlessly in the first part of the program, but he really shone in the Beethoven. His crisp and precise beat was easy to follow, and his technique was exemplary. He highlighted stark contrasts between the legato and staccato passages, he let the syncopations ring out, and his dynamics were clearly evident. Moreover, he achieved all of this with minimal movement. He leaned forward and crouched down as necessary, but he was never showy. In the third and fourth movements, he was electric.

So too was soloist Arnaud Sussmann in Brahms’s Violin Concerto. Sussmann is an imposing soloist who stands straight right next to the podium, with both orchestra and conductor well within his peripheral vision. His tone is gorgeous, and he projects well, soaring high above the orchestra with ease. His many other virtues are self-evident: perfect intonation, ramrod-straight bowing, tremendous dynamic range, and blistering speed.

Sussmann’s phrasing, however, easily trumps all his other virtues. He carries phrases all the way through, heedless of bar lines or other restrictions that impede the flow of melody. He played whole sections of the concerto in one continuous line that sang from start to finish. His bow seemed glued to his strings as he leaned into melodies, completely dominating the stage.

Sussmann’s performance was dazzling, but it could have been even more so if he had ventured closer to the front of the stage, particularly in the first movement’s lengthy cadenza. That was his golden opportunity to emerge from the orchestra’s shadow and fully engage with the audience, but he took only a few tentative steps into the vacant space.

Even warhorses start out as foals and yearlings, as evidenced by the inclusion of both a brand-new work on the program, along with another of less recent vintage.

The foal was Sonoma Strong, a remembrance of last year’s fires by Santa Rosa native Paul Dooley, who teaches at the University of Michigan. Lecce-Chong waited for dead silence before starting the piece, which begins with whirling-sounding tubes that evoke the wind. Over this ominous noise, a solo trumpet enters, followed by a harp, a trumpet duet, a trumpet trio, and then a full-blown trumpet solo over strings. Despite the increasing numbers of players, no conflagration is evident. Instead, the melodies are soothing and restful. The pace picks up when a conga drum enters, but the mood veers toward the triumphant rather than the incendiary. In and of itself, Sonoma Strong is laudable, but the connection to the firestorm is hard to fathom.

Ellen Zwilich’s 1984 Celebration for Orchestra, the yearling that opened the program, was more successful in its stated purpose. Celebrate the orchestra it does, also beginning with the trumpets, who repeatedly play a simple two-note phrase before fading out. That phrase becomes the unifying element that allows the orchestra to celebrate its sonic diversity. The two-note sequence moves through the various sections, building up anticipation as the volume increases. A sudden pianissimo followed by the ringing of bells brings the celebration to a close.

October 8, 2018: Santa Rosa Symphony performs wildfire-inspired piece on one year anniversary of fires

By: Jeremy Spiegel, October 8, 2018 - KQED

If you were in the North Bay exactly one year ago, you probably remember the wind. Powerful gusts of nearly 80 miles per hour helped fuel some of the deadliest and most destructive fires in state history as they burned at a rate of more than a football field every minute.
 
For composer Paul Dooley that was the starting point for "Sonoma Strong," an original composition commissioned by the Santa Rosa Symphony. The symphony debuted the work at a free concert this summer and has decided to perform it again for its season opener on Oct. 6, 7 and 8.
 
"I wanted to capture some of the wind and some of the energy from that night [on Oct. 8 last year]," said Dooley, a Santa Rosa native who teaches at the University of Michigan.
 
To do that he used something you won't typically find in a symphony: massive musical tubes called whirlies. You swing them around over your head and they make a soft whistling sound.
 
"The swirling of the whirlies sort of looks a little bit like a siren — it can kind of evoke that feeling," he said. "But it's also a very beautiful sound, so I figured it might be an elegant way to capture some of the energy from that night."
 
The whirlies are set to multiple trumpet solos. After a while, the strings come in and the piece begins to build.
 
"And that transforms into a sort of ominous climax, marking the halfway point of the piece," Dooley said.
 
That climax evokes the devastation of the October fires, which destroyed thousands of homes and killed 44 people — devastation that was certainly felt by the Santa Rosa Symphony. According to Santa Rosa Symphony President and CEO Alan Silow, 22 families closely connected to the symphony lost their homes in the fires, including members of the board, musicians and staff. A number of the organizations' major donors and subscribers also lost their homes.
 
The symphony had to cancel and postpone concerts and call off their annual donation campaign, as many of the symphony's staff were forced to evacuate from their homes.
 
"We still paid our staff for the time they had to miss, we still paid our musicians for the concerts we had to cancel, because we thought that was the right thing to do," Silow said. "But obviously that also impacted us, fiscally speaking, as well."
 
But now, Silow said, they're beginning to move toward recovery.
 
"I don't know if I would say it's triumph, but we're definitely in recovery," he said. "And I think whenever tragedies hit like that, the silver lining is it brings out the best of people. It has definitely brought out the best of people in Sonoma County."
 
That's a sentiment that Dooley worked to capture in "Sonoma Strong." After the piece's ominous climax, there's a marked change in tone.
 
New instruments enter. The key changes.
 
"The piece transitions to what I would call the rebirth," he said. "And it's the first entrance of the woodwinds: the flutes, the oboes, the clarinets and the bassoons."
During the "rebirth" portion, Dooley builds off of the themes he established at the beginning of the piece but with new instruments and a different tone, giving it a "more heroic and celebratory fashion and feel," according to Dooley.
 
That heroism and celebration — the feeling of triumph that comes along with rebuilding — is what Dooley hopes sticks with the audience.
 
"I'm hoping that through the transformation of the piece, people are somewhat reminded of what happened last year, but are given a new outlook. Or the piece helps them transform their view of the horror of [the wildfires] into something positive and something that can bring the community together, as the construction and rebuilding continues," he said.

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