Dreamers & Titans Review

Classical Sonoma

Mahler “Titan” at SoCo Phil’s Season Finale

Review by Terry McNeill
Saturday, April 8, 2017

A composer’s first symphony rarely gives a clear indication of what beautiful complexities will follow over the years. Early Mozart and Tchaikovsky are examples, and the big exceptions to this axiom are the “firsts” of Beethoven, Shostakovich and Mahler.

Tackling Mahler‘s D Major Symphony (No. 1 “Titan”) April 8 was the intrepid Sonoma County Philharmonic, playing before an audience of 300 in the Santa Rosa High School Auditorium. Conductor Norman Gamboa took moderate tempos throughout, aiming for sonic balance in the score that runs well over 50 minutes. In a departure from local symphonic custom Mr. Gamboa directed from memory, and clearly the Mahler is a special piece for him.

In the long five-movement work a key conductor’s task is to balance instrumental sections, especially to limit brass domination of the strings, and Mr. Gamboa here was mostly successful. He caught the jolly swing from the opening bucolic pianississimo to gentle melodies in the horns (Ruth Wilson, Eric Anderson).

Tom Hyde’s trumpet solo set off the first theme of the Blumine movement, with lovely playing from harpist Randall Pratt and oboist Chris Krive, the latter playing a long Wagner-like melancholy theme. The ending in the high strings was shimmering and convincing.

Through the third and fourth (march) movements Mahler’s demands for seamless horn and wind choir playing were difficult to sustain, as the combination of instrumental stamina and high volume took a toll. That said, handsome playing was abundant in large numbers: four flutes and piccolo (Emily Reynolds, Debra Scheuerman, Mary Kemnec, Valerie White); bassoon and contrabassoon (Miranda Kincaid, Steven Peterson). The finale featured the visual treat of eight horn players standing in a row in front of the percussion section and blowing an inspired lyric melody that harkens to the D Major that was last heard long ago during the first movement. Assaulting violence in sound alternated with the composer’s splashy thematic richness. It was a harbinger of what was to some in the next 20 years and eight additional symphonies.

A signature part of this symphony is the contrabass solo (played by Karen Zimmerman) and perky piccolo duet in the march, and the conductor shaped it as a slow march. But there was nothing funereal about the sound, and Mr. Gamboa’s canny control of the many delicate changes of rhythm kept the music’s pulse steady.

One piece comprised the concert’s first half, Rachmaninoff’s C Minor Concerto (Op. 18) with pianist Leyla Kabuli. Ms. Kabuli’s playing had many fresh effects including uniquely breaking several of the opening left-hand chords and soberly artful phrasing. The ensemble was marred by the orchestra sounding too loud.

Clarity returned in the famous adagio sostenuto that featured flute and horn solos. Ms. Kabula mastered the tsunami of notes to the degree that lyric beauty of phrase was the focus in this super romantic score. Rachmaninoff’s four Concertos, Rhapsody and two Sonatas all are crammed with notes for the pianist, and though it’s easy to omit some in the thick sonic mix, the resulting aural fabric is adversely changed. Mr. Gamboa and Ms. Kabula solved this concern by adopting judicious tempos and watchful deference to the other’s musical part.

Oboe (Mr. Krive) and clarinet playing (Nick Xenelis) were first cabin throughout the work, and Robby Morales performed a sumptuous viola solo in the concluding allegro scherzando. The Hall’s resident piano, sub-par in past seasons in a Falla work and Mozart’s K. 488 Concerto, here sounded well, with surprisingly not brilliant hammer voicing and an improvement from the formerly dull bass string sound.

Ms. Kabula’s hard work in the finale was compromised by an overly resonant orchestra, and her playing in the speedy coda was buried. She could be seen but not heard.

Perhaps the pianist wanted to have a strong final say, and returned amidst an ovation to play a long encore – Liszt’s 12th Etude d’execution transcendante, Chasse-neige (Snow Plow). It was a wonderful performance with accurate contrary-motion chord skips and rapid tremolo. There wasn’t a hint of slackening endurance and the audience loved it.

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