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SYMPHONY REVIEW
Santa Rosa Symphony / Saturday, March 16, 2013
Bruno Ferrandis, conductor; Zuill Bailey, cello

Cellist Zuill Bailey

SWEPT AWAY

by Steve Osborn
Saturday, March 16, 2013

The title of the Santa Rosa Symphony's March 16 concert was "Sweeping Emotions," but no brooms were in evidence, nor did the Symphony play "The Sorcerer's Apprentice," the canonic broom piece, thanks to Disney’s iconic film "Fantasia." Instead of brooms, they offered cellist Zuill Bailey, whose mop of thick black hair might have qualified as a broom, although the rest of his frame would never be mistaken for a ramrod-straight broomstick. Indeed, there was nothing rigid whatsoever about his approach to playing the cello. He draped himself around his instrument as if it were a treasure chest, doling out pieces of eight and glistening emeralds in equal measure.

The mustachioed and bearded Bailey, clad entirely in black, could have passed for Johnny Depp in "Pirates of the Caribbean," but his interests were altruistic rather than plunderous. He shared his treasure chest with all in attendance, pulling sounds out of his 1693 Matteo Gofriller cello that might have lain dormant for centuries. His tone was big, rich, velvety, and succulent. His technique was likewise flawless, and his intonation was superb. Mr. Bailey's most captivating aspect, however, was his musicality. He played one of his star vehicles--the Elgar Cello Concerto--to the hilt, unsheathing some memorable passages but also exposing some of its flaws.

The Elgar concerto, made famous by cellist Jacqueline du Pré, is a lush late-Romantic work replete with soaring lines and cavernous descents. The artist connected with the concerto's essence in the opening bars, spinning out a solo line that plunged dramatically to a sustained, resonant, elegiac low note. By the time the violas entered with their "infinite tune," Mr. Bailey had already established a somber yet opulent mood, a feeling that the orchestra sustained brilliantly under conductor Bruno Ferrandis.

The first movement was the most memorable element, both of the concerto and the performance. Bailey swayed gently as he played, his luxuriant vibrato matching his body language. He looked up at the ceiling, then down to his cello, then over to Mr. Ferrandis, seeming to draw as much inspiration from his surroundings as from his musical core. His playing was emotional, nowhere more so than in the powerful pizzicatos that bring the movement to a close.

The soloist, who seemed utterly relaxed throughout his performance, transitioned seamlessly to the Allegro second movement, which features finger-twisting passagework and rapid bowing. These were perfectly executed, earning him a smattering of applause at movement's end. In contrast, the Adagio third movement was tender and thinly orchestrated, almost like chamber music.

The only problems were Elgar's, not Mr. Bailey's. Unlike most concertos, the Elgar has a fourth movement, which in this case not only recapitulates the preceding material, but also introduces a bevy of new ideas. Some of the components, such as the tremolo passages, are good, but the whole lacks focus, as if Elgar were uncertain how to bring the concerto to a close. Notwithstanding these compositional flaws, Mr. Bailey's playing was outstanding, ranging from barn-dance pyrotechnics to breathtaking pianissimos. He earned a standing ovation but sadly offered no encore.

The orchestral playing was also outstanding, beginning with Penderecki's "The Awakening of Jacob," moving through the Elgar and concluding with Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 6, the "Pathétique." The Penderecki, from 1974, is a programmatic piece, effectively evoking Jacob's ladder through the repeated use of glissandos. These perpetual string slidings are punctuated at judicious moments by the brass and, most eerily, by a set of ocarinas (ancient flutes) played by the entire woodwind section. The piece was both concise and powerful, and it evoked some hearty applause.

Also evoking applause, even in the "wrong" places, was the orchestra's resplendent performance of the Tchaikovsky symphony, his last work. This magnificent composition, which in some ways encompasses all of Tchaikovsky's genius, begins and ends on a somber note but revels giddily in between. The orchestra's playing throughout was precise and well coordinated, its members breathing as one on Tchaikovsky's many crescendos and diminuendos, even as they kept perfect time.

Each movement was distinctive. The first, with its dense orchestration, featured Roy Zajac’s elegant clarinet solo, a wonderful descent from the tuba, and some invigorating Presto passages. The second, in a lilting 5/4 rhythm, moved forward steadily, with Mr. Ferrandis dancing his way around the podium. The third was almost miraculous. Keeping to a brisk tempo, the strings played flawlessly, and the entire orchestra sprinted forward with an irresistible, infectious beat. The repeated iterations of the march theme drew actual gasps from the audience, which burst into applause at movement's end.

When the clapping subsided, Mr. Ferrandis and company returned to the difficult task of playing Tchaikovsky's final lament. Here the orchestral unanimity was compelling, the tragic theme moving deftly from the upper strings, to the French horns, and ultimately to the cellos and basses. At the end, Mr. Ferrandis paused for a long moment before lowering his arms. Even then, he gestured toward the orchestra before turning to face the audience, which seemed thoroughly swept up in the emotions of the evening.