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SYMPHONY REVIEW
Sonoma State University Symphony Orchestra / Friday, December 11, 2015
Alexander Kahn, conductor. Marilyn Thompson, piano

Alexander Kahn and Marilyn Thompson Dec. 11

THE LITTLE ORCHESTRA THAT COULD

by Terry McNeill
Friday, December 11, 2015

Hearing a symphony’s inaugural concert is a special event, and the Sonoma State Symphony Orchestra Dec. 11 launched what should be a prosperous musical life with a Weill Hall concert. The University Music Department has had permanent chamber, band and jazz ensembles, but never a flesh-in-the-blood orchestra. Now they do.
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On paper Composer John Corigliano’s "Voyage" seemed a unique opening, but the eight-minute version for strings passed without much notice or interest. It’s reminiscent of Hovhaness and conductor Alexander Kahn led effectively with the music never rising about a mezzo piano. Eschewing the excitement of a lively season overture, it was an odd choice for a gala event.

Mozart’s D Minor Concerto, K. 466, was another matter, and pianist Marilyn Thompson joined the mix in a scrappy but ultimately satisfying reading of the work from 1785. Listeners wanting pitch-perfect playing with sharp attacks, cutoffs and integrated instrumental entrances would not have found it here, but the sonic balances were good and after the initially unsteady Allegro chords the masterful Mozart drama unfolded well.

Playing from score Ms. Thompson adopted an understated approach to the solo part, preferring elegance to high drama, and here and in the concluding movement played the cadenzas by Adolph Baller. Many (Alkan, Brahms, Beethoven, Busoni) have written cadenzas for the 20th Concerto, and I found Baller’s to be idiomatic and in places provocative, with sharp and unexpected modulations. The Romanze was performed with only limited use of rubato, and Ms. Thompson’s refined playing in the finale was her best of the evening. Marie Vizcaino was a splendid oboist, contrasting with a sporadically overly loud timpanist.

Following the shortest Weill Hall intermission in memory the concert concluded with Beethoven’s First Symphony, the Haydnesque one in C Major (Op. 21) from 1800. The opening “question and answer” pair of chords for winds, horns and plucked strings immediately caught my attention, with cadences that then emerged fully formed in focused playing of the small ensemble of 25. Mr. Kahn drew a good performance throughout, especially in the Menuetto: Allegro where there was welcome section clarity. At times in rapid upward passages the high string notes were blurred, something that will surely diminish with more performances.

Applause at the end was loud and often boisterous, as colleagues of the student musicians yelled for their favorites, and the conductor was returned three times to the stage.

Prior to the Corigliano Mr. Kahn, recently appointed to the SSU faculty, addressed the audience of 300 at length regarding the gestation of the Orchestra and opportunity to join a music department of increasing importance with the Green Center’s halls as a resplendent venue. At a post-concert reception the conductor told of plans for a May, 2016 concert, and the expectation of subsequently four concerts per season. That is a pleasurable prospect for North Bay music lovers.