Classical Sonoma

Elegant Beethoven Concerto in SoCo Phil Season Opener

Review by Terry McNeill
Saturday, September 28, 2019

After last season’s schedule with one big repertoire work per concert, the Sonoma County Philharmonic opened its 21st season Sept. 28 with two, and both received committed if disparate performances under resident conductor Norman Gamboa.

The first half in Santa Rosa’s Jackson Theater opened not with the expected overture and a concerto, but with Brahms’ Third Symphony, Op. 90. In a pre-concert talk the conductor mentioned that the unobtrusive ending of the F Major Symphony was better suited to the first half than a normal concert’s conclusion with the customary dramatic finish.

Judicious tempos were the order of the day in the Brahms with a lightweight high string sound, due to just five first and five second violins, with violas and low strings seated stage left. The opening sounded both fiery and then a little ambiguous, and then Mr. Gamboa fashioned a performance that with the selected tempos was mostly restrained and controlled. In the andante there was wistful trio playing from clarinetist Nick Xenelis, bassoonist Miranda Kincaid and Eric Anderson (horn), with a shimmering and drawn-out final chord.

The ensemble playing in the poco allegretto was at times unsteady, but also had splendid combined work from flute (Debra Scheüerman), oboist Christ Krive and Mr. Anderson’s fetching horn sound in the main theme.

The finale was played with off beat accents, some odd instrumental delays and short bursts of sound. Mary Ann Sacksteder’s contrabassoon sound was a rich addition to the mix, and Mr. Gamboa never had his head in the score, sculpting the ending phrase with lovely serenity in the long fermata.

Musical pace quickened with Beethoven’s D Major Violin Concerto, occupying the concert’s second half, with San Francisco State University faculty violinist and virtuoso Jassen Todorov as soloist. This reviewer has heard the violinist numerous times in recital settings with the elegant pianist William Corbett-Jones, but in the Beethoven Concerto only once in a long ago video, with poor sound, and it seemed an off night for him. But not this night.

With a reduced size orchestra from the Brahms (no trombones, one flute, 2 horns) Messrs. Todorov and Gamboa combined to give a reading that spotlighted dynamic control and carefully graded tempos. In this music from 1806 much of the writing is in the upper reaches of the solo instrument, and here Mr. Todorov was at his best. Playing from score but only occasionally noticing it, he was everywhere secure as the long, glorious allegro ma non troppo unfolded.

The cadenza (by Fritz Kreisler) had a wonderful interweaving of line and control, and when the pyro techniques ended Mr. Todorov played the simple returning theme with reduced vibrato and melting tone over pizzicato strings and murmuring horns. It was the concert’s highlight, every note a telling one, every note touching your heart.

In the lovely larghetto ensemble attacks lacked precision but Mr. Gamboa also drew fine pianissimo playing and graceful phrasing from his orchestra, leading into the lively finale. Here the frequently repeated theme borders on the banal, but like every genius composer, Beethoven takes the tune and makes it memorable, anything but insipid. His creativity knows no bounds, something Mr. Gamboa adroitly exploited in the numerous repetitions.

Mr. Todorov again was at home in the high register and his trills were always expressive, contrasting with Steven Peterson’s bassoon sound, up to a sparkling end. Audience applause was loud and long, leading to three curtain calls for both conductor and soloist, and a large presentation bouquet that Mr. Todorov graciously gave to concertmaster Pamela Otsuka.

It was an auspicious season beginning for the Philharmonic, with coming concerts in Jackson Nov. 16 and 17 featuring Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No. 1. It looks like a banner year for string music and this splendid orchestra.

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