“A Hero’s Life” Review

Classical Sonoma

A Hero’s Odyssey in SoCo Phil Concert

Review by Art Hofmann
Sunday, November 18, 2018

The audience at the Sonoma County Philharmonic’s Nov. 18 concert was warned at the outset that the old Santa Rosa High School auditorium boiler was turned off, and there was a steady eminently audible tone in the hall. Conductor Norman Gamboa said the tone was an A, a high one. But there it was, absolutely audible, especially during softer passages throughout the whole concert, always seeming to call out for an engineer, whether trained as a musician or not, and preferably one with a hammer.

Following announcements Mr. Gamboa took the podium and conducted of Apu, a Tone Poem for Orchestra by Gabriela Lena Frank, and written just last year. A smaller than usual ensemble, strings, percussion and some winds, was playing to a house that was about three quarters full, many people likely kept away by the smoke lingering in the air from fires up north.

This tone poem evokes a journey through the mountains and forest of Peru, whose the Apu figure is mischievous spirit, who accompanies and sometimes harasses travelers on their journeys through the forests and mountains, perhaps a bit like Kokopeli in the Southwestern U.S. With the Emily Reynolds’s flute assuming the title role, it featured angular rhythms, often up tight against the beat, or offset with sharp percussive effects from the tympani and xylophone (marimba). The string section provided another strong contrastive element, again as foil for the impish flute.

Lyrical passages in strings were interrupted by passages where violins and cellos were suddenly plucked, not pizzicato, but like monotone rhythm guitars. Nothing was for sure on this journey, where breezes turned into winds, things appeared and disappeared in the ether, and the musical travelers are offered odd prospects. The conductor seemed firmly in control throughout and his musicians were intently focused on their task in this recent, strange, interesting work.

The orchestra was rearranged on stage, and a second ensemble emerged, and played Bosquejoes para Oboe y Cuerdas (Sketches for Oboe and Strings) by Benjamin Gutiérrez. The composer is a fellow countryman of Mr. Gamboa, and was one of his teachers at Conservatorio de Castella, where the conductor began his musical education. The piece was written in 1982 and was a debut performance, probably for the entire North Coast. It features a demanding solo oboe part that was played with consummate artistry by Jesse Barrett, who also plays in the Santa Rosa Symphony. Mr. Barrett captured the soloist’s part that called for virtuoso playing with high piping sounds that at times seemed beyond that instrument’s range, and made the many difficult dissonant runs seem easy. He has enormous facility with the instrument.

Sonorous cello chords opened the piece, which quickly evolved into a tapestry of sounds carried by the violins, alternating with somber cello chords. Violist Robby Morales played a lovely theme, and thus formed a continual backdrop for the musical embroidery of Mr. Barrett’s fine and often piercing woodwind sonority. Mr. Gamboa’s introductory remarks warned that in the piece his teacher had employed rarely used scales (so dissonance was no surprise) but there were also lyric moments in this difficult to categorize composition. Again Mr. Gamboa was in control of his ensemble, and they played with palpable focus and passion.

Ein Heldenleben (Op. 40), a long Strauss tone poem, formed the entire last half of the program. It is a well known, oft played work and one familiar to many concertgoers. Giant figures hover in the background of this piece: Beethoven looms large, as does Wagner, and philosophically, Nietzsche as well. If Strauss was an epigone, he was a tall one. He believed in merit and talent and by that point in his a career (1898) he could show that he had both. Ein Heldenleben is a recapitulation of that career in which he musically “quotes” his many previous successes, especially in the fifth section, where the musical hero retires and seeks peace.

The Philharmonic proceeded to generate a convincing and potent performance of this work. Cellos and horns (Eric Anderson especially) did exemplary work throughout the entire piece, and in the first movement they introduced the hero’s leitmotif and established his thematic presence with ascending E-flat major chords. Clean, clear playing throughout gave a portrait of the hero fellow and his emphatic, bold presence. The hero faces challenges, critics portrayed in music grumble and mutter and spew their gloom in minor keys and dissonance until dispelled by a fanfare from the trumpets, and finally there is a restatement of the heroic theme, albeit darkened.

This negativity is lifted in the next section, said to be a portrait of Strauss’ complex wife, Paulinha de Ahna, which features an extended violin solo played against a background of low strings, winds, and brass. This music was played by the concertmaster Pam Otsuka, masterfully at moments, less so at others where the playing might have benefited from more robustness.

With love declared and done, the orchestra launched into battle with well-executed trumpet fanfares. Into the musical fog of war there was strong playing from the percussion section, until a recapitulation of the hero’s theme in altered form – of course he has changed – and signals his triumph. Mr. Gamboa exhibited sterling control of the complex instrumental ensemble.

In the penultimate section the composer reflects on his musical past by weaving a masterful blend of his favorite melodies from his career into the score. A mood of reflective quiet pervades the work’s final section, with the musical hero withdrawn into a meditative retirement. There are final musical glimpses of the past, a variation of the hero theme and a last serene conclusion. The hero is fulfilled.

The audience expressed its approval in an extended ovation. On the conductor’s signal the concertmaster stood to acknowledge in the applause, as did brass (trumpeter Dave Lindgren was outstanding), the horns, winds (Ms. Scheüerman), cellos, percussion and lastly the entire violin section.

Following the concert the audience steeled itself collectively to return to the smoky air, not a new condition in Sonoma County, but one that continues to call for renewed heroics and tenacity.

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