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2019-2020 Season

January 14, 2020: Violinist Simone Porter aspires to stardom with Santa Rosa Symphony

By: , January 14, 2020 - Steve Osborn, San Francisco Classical Voice

The Sibelius Violin Concerto in D Minor is one of several mountains that violin soloists need to ascend before they can lay claim to stardom. Hundreds make the attempt every year, but only a few reach the top. Simone Porter, who played the concerto with the Santa Rosa Symphony on Sunday afternoon, got close, but didn’t quite summit.

Porter wore a red jumpsuit that complemented her athleticism and musicality. She was often in motion, whether bending at the knees to gather strength or bolting upright to reach the highest notes on her instrument. Her movements often paralleled her phrasing, with forward surges or backward steps marking phrase beginnings and endings.

The main story, however, was Porter’s gorgeous sound, particularly on the lower strings. Her low notes at the beginning of the concerto’s first movement were simply stupendous. She could have stayed down there for the entire concerto, so awesome was the sound.

Nonetheless, Porter moved on to the upper strings, complementing her basso profundo with exquisite phrasing somewhere north of high C. It was a visceral performance aided and abetted by flawless bowing and vibrato. Her bow arm was a marvel of fluidity.

The highlight of the first movement was a passage near the end that Porter played entirely on the G string while effortlessly shifting up and down the fingerboard. The closing presto was nearly as riveting, and the audience, including me, burst into indecorous applause at the end.

Sadly, the slow second movement didn’t live up to the sprightly first. The horn entries were sometimes ragged, and the orchestra was often too loud, covering Porter to a certain degree. Worse still, the tempo began to plod in the middle, but both Porter and conductor Francesco Lecce-Chong made a full recovery in time for the emotional ending.

The third movement was a mixed bag. Porter played the main theme beautifully, really digging in to the repeated downbows that punctuate the movement. But her many upper-register runs were sometimes rough, with dubious intonation on the highest notes and a lack of clarity in the fastest passages. The beauty and urgency of her playing, however, brought her close to the top. Stardom for Porter is a definite possibility, but she needs some fine tuning.

Sticking with the tried and true, Lecce-Chong conducted Brahms’s Symphony No. 2 after intermission. Attention shifted to the orchestra, where full participation is needed to unveil Brahms’s intricate and monumental construction. The strings began with assurance, producing a lush but crisp sound in the opening bars. Lecce-Chong’s gestures on the podium were compact and exact, displaying a lapidary polish and precision. You could close your eyes and imagine a bucolic alpine meadow, surrounded by imposing mountains.

The cellos opened the second movement with an expansive line that warmly embraced a limpid solo by horn principal Meredith Brown. Suddenly, everything was moving at once, with each line distinct and easily heard. Lecce-Chong achieved clarity amid Brahms’s density, allowing each section its moment in the sun. A wonderful pause near the end actually increased the dramatic intensity.

The exactitude and precision continued in the remaining movements. In the third, the dynamics were superb, the melodies playful and lilting. In contrast, the fourth was rollicking and tumultuous, with a staggering level of artistic invention on display. Lecce-Chong captured just the right spirit by eschewing overly dramatic gestures and keeping to the task at hand. It’s hard to imagine a better performance.

Unfortunately, I was a few minutes late to the concert because of a forgotten ticket, so I had to watch the opening piece — Missy Mazzoli’s Sinfonia — on a closed-circuit TV in the lobby. It sounded interesting, but that’s as far as I can go.

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

December 10, 2019: Everlasting Light at Santa Rosa Symphony

By: Steve Osborn, December 10, 2019 - San Francisco Classical Voice

The Mozart Requiem includes four intermittent vocal soloists, but the real star is the choir, which is featured in almost every movement. That stardom shone bright at the Santa Rosa Symphony’s memorable Requiem performance on Monday night, Dec. 9. The soloists were good, but the choir — Sonoma State University Symphonic Chorus — was superb. Located within the orchestra instead of in the choir loft, the choristers were fully integrated into the sonic texture, aided in no small part by their excellent diction and well-controlled dynamics.
 
Instead of the standard Sussmayer version of Mozart’s unfinished masterpiece, maestro Francesco Lecce-Chong chose a contemporary version by musicologist Robert Levin. The differences are mostly subtle, but Levin adds a fully embellished “Amen” fugue at the end of the “Lacrimosa” section and tinkers with the “Sanctus.” The tinkering works, but the new fugue sounds more Baroque than Mozartean.
Those quibbles aside, the performance was nearly transcendent, displaying Mozart’s genius and humanity at its most profound. Conducting without a score, Lecce-Chong displayed complete command of every measure, eliciting a crisp sound from the orchestra and expressive singing from the choir. The articulation from both players and singers was knife-edged, with every note and syllable distinct. The tempos were brisk and steady.
 
Standout moments included the “Dies Irae,” which took off like a rocket. The choir’s eyes were glued to Lecce-Chong rather than buried in their scores, and they reacted swiftly to his graceful cues. The subsequent “Tuba Mirum” moved at a similarly brisk pace and featured strong solos from bass Philip Skinner and trombonist Amy Bowers. The vocal quartet in the “Recordare” was fine, but the top three singers’ limits became evident over the course of the movement. Soprano Shawnette Sulker had too much vibrato and seemed preoccupied with her score; alto Laura Krumm had good tone but was drowned out; tenor Benjamin Brecher had a sweet sound, but his voice was often constricted. As in the “Tuba Mirum,” bass Philip Skinner proved the most consistent.
 
Lecce-Chong took a long pause at the end of the new “Amen” section, perhaps to gather his forces for the majestic “Domine Jesu” and “Hostias,” which really cooked. Everyone on stage was swept up by the conductor’s relentless energy, as each gorgeous phrase flowed into the next. The momentum carried into the “Sanctus,” whose “Hosanna in excelsis” lines were downright rollicking. In the “Agnus Dei,” the choir showed off its precise articulation, enunciating “qui tollis peccata mundi” with clarion fervor. The final words of the Requiem — “et lux perpetua luceat eis” (let everlasting light shine upon them) — lived up to their double meaning, referring not only to the light of heaven, but also to Mozart’s eternal genius.
 
Genius of another kind inhabited the first half of the concert, which opened with a sparkling performance of Haydn’s Symphony No. 39. Lecce-Chong conducted the reduced ensemble (strings, four horns, two oboes, and bassoon) while standing before an elevated fortepiano, on which he interpolated occasional unscored continuo parts. The fortepiano was mostly inaudible, but it did rise to the occasion when the strings played pianissimo.
 
Haydn’s symphony is a real gem, as deserving of respect as his later efforts. The orchestra opens very quietly, with pregnant, jokey rests between phrases. Despite the quietude, the ensemble bristled with energy that carried over into the later, louder sections. The Andante second movement was spare, elegant and courtly, with bows in perfect sync. A unified, reverberant sound from the strings dominated the Minuet and continued in the dramatic Allegro di molto finale, where the players spun off a series of exemplary runs at a furious pace.
 
Furious pacing was nowhere in evidence in the next work, Records from a Vanishing City, by contemporary composer Jessie Montgomery. In his introduction, Lecce-Chong said the piece “creates a sense of place” by recreating the “white noise” the composer heard while growing up in the lower east side of Manhattan. Lecce-Chong’s description turned out to be accurate, but unfortunately the piece never went beyond atmospherics.
Montgomery is clearly skilled at orchestration, and the density of her sound is remarkable. Nonetheless, her basic modus operandi is to place solos atop a constantly shifting cloud of sound. The results were often beautiful, but the piece never went anywhere, and development was hard to detect.  

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

October 9, 2019: Orchestral virtuosity in SR Symphony's 92nd season opener

By: Terry McNeill, October 9, 2019 - Classical Sonoma

Season-beginning orchestra concerts usually feature a splashy mix of overture/fanfare, a sonorous symphony and a virtuosic concerto. Santa Rosa Symphony’s Oct. 6 opener in Weill Hall had a contrary design with two new works and a Richard Strauss symphonic showpiece tone poem. Sunday’s afternoon’s concert in the set of three is reviewed here.

Somehow a Beethoven Concerto slipped into the mix, with San Francisco based virtuoso pianist Garrick Ohlsson the soloist with resident conductor Francesco Lecce-Chong on the podium. Mr. Ohlsson’s chaste opening phrase in the G Major (Op. 58) Concerto led to an ethereal orchestral start and judicious tempos throughout the allegro moderato. Everything was in balance and themes were limpid and clear to my balcony seat. Several years ago in recital Mr. Olhsson played with the largest piano sonority I have yet heard in Weill, with Liszt’s great “Weinen, Klagen” Variations. Horowitz and Hofmann sonority. But this afternoon he aimed at a refined and balanced interpretation, occasionally surprisingly breaking a chord but eschewing inner voices or harmonic pointing.

In the midst of gentile orchestral support the pianist displayed in the first movement many examples of his stellar art with expressive trills and deft control of pianissimo, but also much that was conventional. Outside of routine, Mr. Ohlsson’s pedal technique missed the opportunity for resonance (full pedal) and taking advantage of the potent orchestral tutti before restating the opening theme fortissimo in the middle of the movement, but he did hold the pedal through the final three chords, a nod perhaps to virtuoso tradition.

Playing in the andante was elegant throughout with deft pauses in the unfolding soft drama, leading inexorably to a lively rondo with Mr. Lecce-Chong in steady control. Again Mr. Ohlsson took a restrained interpretative approach, but it’s that kind of piece with ample subdued drama. He played the Beethoven cadenzas in the first and third movements, the latter with marching left-hand phrases and much half pedal. Though dozens of innovative cadenza alternatives exist, the composer’s own seem alas to be the rule these days.

There was a standing ovation, followed by a lengthy intermission, and the second half began with composer-in-residence Matt Browne’s How The Solar System Was Won. Lasting just eight minutes the work is steeped in contrasts, opening with an eerie shimmering voice in the strings and moving to expertly played instrumental solos from the flute, piccolo, brass brilliance (three each trumpets and trombones), Andrew Lewis’ tympani and distinct wood block and xylophone sound from three percussionists. There is some cacophony in this music, leavened by lyrical playing from the first violin section.

The composer made charming explanatory remarks from the stage prior to the tour de force performance, and appeared at the end to loud applause.

Over 60 musicians were on stage for the concert’s finale, Strauss’ 1896 Also Sprach Zarathustra tone poem. The famous brass and organ opening was suitably powerful, and the conductor perfectly shaped the sound and the eight subsequent parts that are at times meandering but also replete with splendid individual playing. Some of the highlights were Scott Macomber’s trumpet work, chirpy flute and piccolo playing and rich sound from Andy Butler’s five contrabass musicians.

The performance was packed with imposing juxtapositions – long sections of lugubrious sensuality and then explosive outpourings of sound, even in the short fugue that had accelerated speed. Clarity of texture came with Mr. Lecce-Chong’s attention to section detail, to the point that even the two harp, tuba and organ parts were lucid.

This work demands impeccable playing from the first violins, and it was so in this performance, reminiscent of the Strauss Ein Heldenleben on the Weill stage three years ago from the Mariinsky Orchestra and conductor Valery Gergiev. The concertmaster then played like an angel in the many solos, and his counterpart here, Joseph Edelberg and his exemplary violin colleagues, did likewise, often in fetching lyricism over the flutes and clarinets.

The audience of nearly 1,300 clapped vigorously, and the Mr. Lecce-Chong motioned for many of his musicians to stand to acknowledge the applause.

The concert began with Anna Clyne’s Masquerade, a short piece with obligatory noisy percussion effects and hoary banal melodies, and passed with little notice.

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