“Free Spirit” Review

Classical Sonoma

SoCo Phil’s Season Closes with Expansive Prokofiev 5th

Review by Terry McNeill
Sunday, April 7, 2019

Closing their 20th season with their usual programming aplomb, the Sonoma County Philharmonic played a provocative set of concerts April 6 and 7 in the Jackson Theater, the Orchestra’s new home at the Sonoma Country Day School by the Sonoma County Airport.

Local composer Nolan Gasser’s Sonoma Overture, Op. 20, began the Sunday concert, only the second hearing of the work that premiered at the Santa Rosa Symphony’s gala Weill Hall opening event in 2013. It proved to be a bustling and busy work with big sections brass fanfare and snazzy sound from five percussionists and timpanist Tony Blake. Tempos selected by conductor Norman Gamboa in the interlocking sections were brisk, and piquant music came from chimes, snare drum, marimba, piano (Carol Schindler), harp and soprano saxophone. All this musical commotion overwhelmed the string sections, albeit with a lovely cello solo from Hans Brightbill and beautiful sounds from three flutes.

Copland from the 1930s and more recently John Williams’ music were compositional influences for the composer, and a strident loud climax ended the 14-minute work.

Frisky musical momentum continued with a unique concerto, Israeli composer Yosef Hamami’ s “Freakollo” for piccolo and orchestra. The Orchestra’s principal flutist Debra Scheüerman triumphed in the 15-minute piece, playing from the sheet music though having to wait to enter for an extended orchestra introduction. Much of the solo part is integrated into the Orchestra’s score, though there was a cadenza and a lengthy held note ending the first part, leading to more music with a Middle East/Egyptian flavor and a sunny harp part (Kristina Kopriva) and ample horns.

Ms. Scheüerman moved the solo part along with many agogics and florid runs, mostly descending. There was little variation in the solo instrument’s volume and the artist alternated lyrical phrases with short melodic lines and speedy scales. The Hamami piccolo concerto was probably a North Bay premiere, effective in its smallish size and this perceptive performance.

It comes as no surprise that the impact of the two pieces in the first half were quickly swept away with the arrival of the second half’s mighty Prokofiev 5th Symphony, Op. 100, in B-Flat Major. Mr. Gamboa’s forces got off to a shaky start in the opening andante and throughout the 49 minutes in four movements he was content with judicious tempos, slower than many other conductors prefer. Not ponderous, but in no hurry to get anywhere with this richly orchestrated formidable music from 1944. Balcony acoustics in Jackson have short reverberation and dryness, but admirable clarity, and the andante exhibited flute (Emily Reynolds, Mary Kemnec) and oboe (Chris Krive) duets and band-like brass playing from trombones and trumpets. An extended fortissimo twice ended a dramatic coda.

Wind instrument virtuosity in the scherzo had some of the best playing of the afternoon (oboes, Nick Xenelis’ magical clarinet, bassoonist Miranda Kincaid) juxtaposed with a theme in the violas (Robby Morales) coming out of the middle of the Orchestra. Mr. Gamboa sits his strings conventionally, cellos and basses stage left, and the exciting and sometimes sinister music was extra effective as he took phrase repeats at slightly different tempos and volume. Changing from a pokey pace to an accelerando gave this movement lift and punch.

Expansive themes characterized the great adagio, as did persuasive individual performers: tubist Floyd Reinhart, Mr. Xenelis and Mr. Krive, Ms. Kopriva and Ms. Kincaid. Mr. Gamboa spotlighted the music’s dissonances and mystery in the dark march section with piquant flute, cymbal, gong, much trombone artistry and finally a faint arpeggiated chord from the clarinet.

The conductor drew an energetic reading in the allegro finale and each new theme seemed to sweep over the preceding ones, almost all joyous except for some solemn interludes. There was a “fate” theme in the cellos and scrappy horn and snare drum playing towards the end, with a trumpet flourish that sped the movement to a tumultuous and propulsive ending.

Many in the audience of 300 rose in raucous appreciation, and used the opportunity in this season’s final concert to chat with the musicians in the large and picturesque Jackson lobby.

Orchestra member (oboist) Anthony Perry doubled as the program’s insouciant announcer, and presented information concerning the coming 2019-2020 season that will differ from past years with more conventional repertoire. There will be two sets in each of four concerts, beginning Sept. 28 and ending April 5. Mr. Gamboa will direct all eight during his eighth season with the Philharmonic.

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