!PURA VIDA! A Sonic Triumph in Thrilling Costa Rica Tour Concert
Review by Terry McNeill
Tuesday, June 19, 2018
Long anticipated events, such as a great sporting game, gourmet feast, holiday trip or a concert, occasionally fall way short of expectations. The results don’t measure to expectations. With the Sonoma County Philharmonic’s Costa Rica concert June 19, the performance exceeded any heated or tenuous prospects. They hit the proverbial home run in a convincing gala performance in the capitol San José’s historic Teatro Nacionál on the third day of an epic week-long Orchestra tour.
Led by Costa Rica native Norman Gamboa, the So Co Phil was augmented by nine local musicians (advanced students and several instrumental teachers) that added to the old hall’s warm acoustics and sonic heft. With several layers of ornate box seats and short sight lines, the Teatro embraced a direct orotund sound with reverberation just under one second. Perfect for the works Mr. Gamboa chose and had been perfected in dedicated pre-trip rehearsals and sound checks.
Chief among the four programmed works was Elgar’s E Minor Cello Concerto, Op. 65, with So Co Phil principal Hans Brightbill as the soloist. Mr. Brightbill has played the work three times since January, and has persuasive ideas about it that began with a solemn introduction and laconic lyricism that in subtle ways dominated each of the four movements. E Major sunshine sporadically broke through the sad but never despairing themes, only to return finally to the Minor. The soloist’s low register warmth and steady control of tempo led into a perfectly gauged pizzicato reference to the first theme and the beguiling next allegro molto.
Improvisatory in design, this movement received the cellist’s deft flexibility of phrase, mimicking his interpretation in the June 15 Bon Voyage Santa Rosa concert where poignant control of soft passages could easily be heard over the Orchestra. Mr. Gamboa fashioned nobility in the sound but never allowed the pathos to diminish. The finale’s light and joyous sections were tempered by Mr. Brightbill’s artful echoes of tunes of the preceding movements.
This complex but elegant work from 1919 received a performance that seemed to be a summary of instrumental introspection and chaste virtuosity, and sensuous agreement of conductor and soloist. Mr. Brightbill brought his own special instrument for the tour, the same for some section players but local instruments were supplied for tympani, percussion, harp and double bass.
Following intermission Mr. Gamboa drew from the Orchestra the best playing I have yet heard of Frank La Rocca’s Crossing the Rubicon, a 1994 piece that had an extra measure of sonic “shimmer” than in past performances. I suspect the additional string weight and theater acoustics made a difference, and for the first time Christina Kopriva’s harp part could be clearly heard, along with solos from clarinetist Nick Xenelis and jazz riffs from Tom Hyde’s always sterling trumpet. The conductor crafted distinct references to Copland’s early 1940 ballet pieces, Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians and Adams’ The Chairman Dances and Eldorado.
Completing the concert was the 1942 symphonic suite (arr. Robert Russell Bennett) from Gershwin’s 1935 opera Porgy and Bess. The playing was a feast of dramatic orchestral color in 29 minutes, with pungent solo playing all around: Jocelyn McCord (marimba); Ms. Kopriva; Robby Morales (viola); Miranda Kinkaid (bassoon); Chris Krive (oboe); Debra Scheüerman (flute); Emily Reynolds (piccolo); Pam Otsuka (violin); Gary Anderson (cello); Mr. Hyde and Mr. Xenelis. In several dramatic passages Mr. Gamboa drove the forte sound to the point that it generated tremors in the wood flooring of the second tier box where I was sitting. Fidgety feet indeed. The famous “Bess, You Are My Woman Now” aria had a memorable performance, highlighted by Mr. Morales’ rich viola realization. Anthony Perry’s English horn solo, mysterious and luxurious, reminded me of a similar statement in the Prelude to the third act of Wagner’s opera Tristan and Isolde. It was beautifully enigmatic. The Orchestra’s three stellar saxophone players (Matthew Bringedahl and Jerome Flag, alto E Flat;Teresa Meikle-Griswold, tenor B Flat) added a unique sound that surprisingly blended well with the piquant Gershwin sonic texture. It was a fetching mix.
With such splashy orchestral playing an encore was demanded, and Mr. Gamboa complied with a strident and boisterous two-minute “Circus Galop” Sousa march. Percussion and cymbal effects slashed through the sprightly music, ending a special concert that saw the United States Ambassador to Costa Rica Sharon Day mount the stage to congratulate Mr. Gamboa and the Orchestra’s President David Poe.
In a musical gift to his native country, Mr. Gamboa programmed Costa Rican composer Julio Fonseca’s Suite Tropical: Fiesta Campestre, to open the concert. Somewhat of a specialty work for the conductor, as he learned the 12-minute Suite in his youth, he clearly relishes pushing the playing from all 12 brass/horn players to piercing levels. It’s that kind of piece, lavish with vivid effects and rhythmic sway, and Mr. Gamboa’s seasoned ensemble triumphed.