“French Images” Review

Classical Sonoma

French Orchestral Music a First for SoCo Phil

Review by Terry McNeill
Sunday, February 02, 2020

Over many years the Sonoma County Philharmonic has played little French music, but perhaps this oversight was corrected Feb. 2 in a splendid all-Gallic program Feb. 1 and 2 in the Jackson Theater. Classical Sonoma reviewed the Sunday afternoon concert.

In his eighth conducting season with the So Co Phil, Norman Gamboa fashioned a performance of Debussy “Images Pour Orchestre” with a lot of musicians on stage, and captured the quiet introduction of the opening “Gigues” with many graded crescendos and decrescendos, fine playing from the winds and penetrating brass from four horns and four trumpets. Bass clarinetist Cathy Brooks played elegantly.

Throughout the first half the conductor favored leisurely tempos in the Debussy and warm sound from the high strings. Exemplary solos were everywhere in this brilliantly scored work: harpist Christina Kopriva, Eric Anderson (horn) and clarinetist Mary Kruzas. Even the raucous snare drum sound added to the mix. This music, as in the afternoon’s concluding Ravel work, has many changing moods that add to difficulty for Mr. Gamboa in balancing sections. The fourth movement (Rondes de Printemps) was played with swirls of sound and the laconic English horn of Anthony Perry.

Berlioz’ famous Love Scene from the Roméo and Juliette Symphony (Op. 17), one movement in the whole of five, began the second half. Here there is no scored brass and subtlety of tempo changes are again critical to maintain. Attacks and cutoffs were clear and the So Co Phil violin section was at their best with more power than in the first two concerts of the season. At 19 minutes the performance did not seem long, and Mr. Gamboa’s shaping of phases in the richly saturated themes was convincing. There was a fetching duo with clarinet (Mary Kruzas) and flutist Emily Reynolds. The bantamweight ending was shimmering.

Ravel’s magical La Valse took only 15 minutes to finish the concert, but has a bevy of instrumental pitfalls that for any orchestra are difficult to avoid. Rhythms and tempos constantly change and false cadences abound, and harmonies shift from mundane Viennese Strauss to decadent post World War I. Mr. Gamboa often wanted a raw sound to contrast familiar waltz strains, and got it from the three bassoonists, glockenspiel, castanets, triangle and a loud bass drum. The continual repeating waltz motives featured knotty chromaticism, harp glissandos and murmuring figures in the cellos.

Mr. Gamboa pushed the tempo all the way to the end, distinct section music dissolving into a rubric of a propulsive, insistent and increasingly loud dance that wasn’t a waltz anymore. It was a unique and stunning performance of a Ravel masterpiece, and the audience of 200 loved it.

One more season concert remains, April 4 and 5 in the Jackson, with a big mountain for the Philharmonic to climb – a violin concerto premiere and Mahler’s momentous Fifth Symphony. However, in a surprise, they announced their first ever Pops concert, June 27, also in the spacious Jackson, which should be an odd juxtaposition with the great Mahler work of April.

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