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2018-2019 Season

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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