Eternal Spirit Review

Classical Sonoma

Monumental Nielsen Symphony Caps SoCo Phil Concert

Review by Terry McNeill
Saturday, January 27, 2018

Turning again away from conventional repertoire, the Sonoma County Philharmonic programmed three works in what were local debut performances in Santa Rosa High School’s Performing Arts Auditorium.

Nielsen’s Fourth Symphony, Op. 29, called “Inextinguishable,” closed the program with an extravaganza of orchestral color and virtuosic playing. Led with careful pacing by conductor Norman Gamboa, the work seemed shorter than its 36-minute duration, always a sign of a compelling conductoral vision and instrumental clarity in the 1916 work’s many sections. Initially the big brass choir (3 trombones, 3 trumpets, tuba and five fiery horns) set the sonic standard, taken up in the poco allegretto and poco adagio by the So Co Phil’s famously first-cabin wind section.

There is much Sibelius (and even Glazunov) in the Nielsen Fourth, and a lot is going on at once – a surprise solo cello line, “bird call” reprises from Emily Reynolds (piccolo) and flutist Debra Scheuerman, laconic wind phrases over pizzicato strings, and energetic continual tympani mastery by Anthony Blake. Mr. Gamboa kept control over a complex sonic mix right to the final accelerando climax with thunder from tympani stationed stage left and right.

Mention needs to be made of greater unanimity in the violins than in recent concerts, and at the beginning of the adagio the violins stated a theme of great breadth and authority, later supported by cellos and violas. Perhaps this intensity was augmented by the seating Mr. Gamboa has favored in recent years, with second violins at stage left in front of the bass viols. Shostakovich wrote climaxes as good as in this Nielsen performance, but more than 20 years later. The long diminuendos chosen by Mr. Gamboa deftly smoothed transitions, and there was ample instrumental “screaming” from piccolo, strings and clarinets. But what captivating “screaming” this music has.

Hans Brightbill was the soloist in the first half’s closing work, Elgar’s E Minor Cello Concerto, Op. 85. My guess is that the performance was the first large Elgar piece heard locally since Hillary Hahn played the Violin Concerto with the Santa Rosa Symphony (Jeffrey Kahane) in the old Well Fargo Center. Though of the same 36-minute duration, the Cello Concerto is more diffuse and wandering than the Violin Concerto, and Mr. Brightbill made a strong case for its inherent originality and occasional vehemence. The tempos were judicious and Mr. Brightbill exhibited a warm incisive sound, particularly in the low registers with a wide vibrato. His bow attacks were punctual and the playing was only lacking in accurate intonation and projection at the very top treble.

Warm applause from the audience and members of the orchestra were heard at the end of the final allegro and multiple presentation bouquets were passed to the soloist.

A beguiling curiosity opened the concert, Théodore Dubois five-movement Second Wind Suite, played by two clarinets, two bassoons, two flutes, horn and oboe, and without the optional string bass. This was light French whipped cream charm from about 1900, similar to Ibert, Chaminade and early St. Saëns. The ensemble played the bouncy phrases with often dance-hall swing, especially in the concluding menuet. It was refreshing music, beginning exactly at 7:30, but arguably passed without much notice compared with the monumental Elgar and Nielsen.

The Suite’s performers were not listed in the program, but included Emily Reynolds, Valerie White, Chris Krive, Nick Xenelis, Cathy Brooks, Steven Peterson, Miranda Kincaid and Eric Anderson.

Orff’s popular “Carmina Burana” will be the featured work in the Philharmonic’s next set, March 17 and 18. They will be joined by the Santa Symphonic Chorus and Santa Rosa Children’s Choral Academy, and singers Ivalah Allen, Mark Kratz and Igor Vieira.

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