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SYMPHONY REVIEW
Santa Rosa Symphony / Monday, February 20, 2023
Bruno Ferrandis, conductor. Jon Nakamatsu, piano

FERRANDIS BRINGS FRENCH MUSIC AND CONSUMMATE SKILL TO SANTA ROSA SYMPHONY

by Steve Osborn
Monday, February 20, 2023

The evening of Feb. 19 was a pleasant one on the Santa Rosa Plain. The sun was shining, and the temperature hovered in the low 50s. Inside Weill Hall at the Green Music Center, the Santa Rosa Symphony prepared to begin its latest concert as the audience buzzed about guest conductor Bruno Ferrandis, who led the Symphony from 2006 to 2018.

Ironically, the first piece played on this beautiful evening was “D’un soir triste” [Of a Sad Evening] by Lili Boulanger, the younger sister of the famous composition teacher Nadia Boulanger. Nadia lived for 92 years and taught many of the 20th century’s greatest composers, but Lili died from tuberculosis at age 24. “D’un Soir triste,” a symponic poem, was one of the last works that Lili completed during her brief life.

Within seconds of starting “D’un Soir triste,” Mr. Ferrandis displayed his distinctive conducting technique that features full use of the podium and frequent leans outward toward the string sections and anything else within his reach. He could have touched the strings with his baton if he were so inclined. At times, he gesticulated for almost every note the orchestra played. Perhaps as a result of the conductor's efforts on the podium, the playing was passionate and intense, well suited to the brooding score. “D’un soir triste” is essentially one long buildup, with a melodic center struggling to move forward against a backdrop of instruments playing half-steps. The end arrives with drums and horns, and the conclusion is a musical impasse.

The gloomy quality of “D’un Soir triste” quickly gave way to the far more cheerful tone poem “D’un Matin de Printemps” [Of a morning in spring], which Lili also wrote near the end of her life. The influence of Debussy and Ravel is close to the surface, with certain phrases sounding like they are lifted straight from Debussy’s “Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune.” Mr. Ferrandis one again went all out to conduct the brief poem, while keeping strict control of the dynamics and the spritely tempos. The pairing of the two Boulanger musical poems left one yearning for more, but it was time to move onto Ravel, with his Piano Concerto in G major. The soloist was Bay Area native Jon Nakamatsu, who got right to work with energetic and impeccable solo turns.

After its buoyant opening, the concerto settles into a slow jazz mode, with several phrases that anticipate Gershwin’s jazz settings. Mr. Nakamatsu’s playing here was exquisite, especially in one solo where he lingered at the bass end of the keyboard. Ravel’s construction is intricate, with the orchestral instruments weaving in and out of the piano line.

The second movement opens with a captivating long and slow piano solo, followed by a solo flute and then strings. Dissonant notes creep in to disrupt the flow, but the piano and orchestra persist. The dissonance gives way to Laura Reynold's poignant oboe solo, followed by a long trill at the end.

The concerto’s third movement brought the first half of the concert to an energetic close. Mr. Ferrandis began the movement at a furious pace while remaining disarmingly calm. Most of the work fell on Mr. Nakamatsu’s shoulders, as he surged forward with a rambunctious solo that pulled everyone along.

In the second half, Mr. Ferrandis replaced the steady diet of French impressionism with one example of American minimalism: “The Canyon,” by Phillip Glass. One glance at the stage made it clear that “The Canyon” would be heavy on percussion. The percussionists had marshalled a veritable brigade of instruments, topped off by a rarely seen set of tubular bells. Sure enough, the percussionists opened the piece with an energetic rhythm. Then the strings joined in as a kind of drone. The beat kept pulsing as more instruments slipped into the festivities: an orchestral piano; the brass; the winds; and finally the tubular bells.

After all the instruments had joined the ensemble, the conductor led them forward to the end. The texture in the second half was as dense as in the first, and the rhythmic drive was still as visceral.

Next up was “La Mer” [“The Sea”], Debussy’s famous portrait of his lifelong companion. As Debussy wrote to a friend before beginning “La Mer,” “I was intended for the noble career of a sailor and have only deviated from that path thanks to the quirks of fate. Even so, I’ve retained a sincere devotion to the sea.”“La Mer” consists of three movements, but each one is a piece unto itself. The first movement, “From dawn to noon on the sea,” depicts sunlight on the ocean as morning evolves. Mr. Ferrandis, as graceful as ever, coaxed a fluid opening out of the players and then stretched to full frame to continue the fluidity, at one point holding his hands above his head. The strings played as one, and a flute and cello duet resonated outward.

The second movement, “Play of the waves,” shows the sea in different states, from calm to turbulent. Debussy brings an unusual orchestration to these pictures, sometimes making the orchestra sound like a string quartet. There were many entrances in the complex score, and Mr. Ferrandis was expert at signaling them, making him fun to watch.

The third and most famous movement, “Dialogue of wind and sea,” is easily the most dramatic, with many of the dialogues leading to conflict. In the first of these, the oboes play short and insistent descending phrases that are shadowed by the French horns. This conflict carries over into the full orchestra, where it is eventually resolves into a fortissimo cadence.

As with the rest of the program, Mr. Ferrandis conducted “La Mer” to perfection. The players responded well to his distinctive gestures, and his programming was stimulating and revelatory.

Steve Osborn, an avid amateur singer, is a freelance reviewer for San Francisco Classical Voice and Classical Sonoma.