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SYMPHONY REVIEW
Marin Symphony / Sunday, November 7, 2021
Alasdair Neale, conductor
Orli Shaham, piano

Conductor Alasdair Neale

MONUMENTAL BRAHMS SYMPHONY HIGHLIGHTS MARIN SYMPHONY RETURN

by Terry McNeill
Sunday, November 7, 2021

In the waning COVID pandemic the Marin Symphony is one of the last Bay Area orchestras to return to the stage, and they did with considerable fanfare Nov. 7 before 1,200 in Civic Center Auditorium, with resident conductor Alasdair Neale leading a demanding concert of Brahms, Schumann and New York-based composer Jessie Montgomery.

Brahms’ C Minor Symphony, Op. 68, was the afternoon’s final work and of course the centerpiece. Dating from 1876, the First Symphony is a sprawling piece covering in this performance 50 minutes in four movements, beginning with a long and dramatic Allegro that had mostly high tension throughout. Conducting without score, Mr. Neale fashioned a cohesive performance that spotlighted oboist Margot Golding and the horn section. Attacks and releases were just short of excellent, and the famous harmonic progression in the exposition repeat was startling.

Bass violin sonority was on display at the Andante’s beginning, continuing with Ms. Golding’s golden sound from the middle of the Orchestra, along with clarinet solos from Arthur Austin. It was odd that the movement-ending solo by concertmaster Jeremy Constant was somewhat covered by the ensemble, never rising to its enchanting height.

The Allegretto was properly happy with an occasional touch of menace, and the Adagio-Allegro was played forcefully, though nicely lessened with the long pizzicato section for strings and the telling one-bar full pause of silence, just before the loud horn call from Darby Hinshaw.

All praise goes to Mr. Neale for deft section control and never shying away from letting his orchestra roar when it was essential to do so. A standing ovation ensued.

Schumann’s iconic A Minor Concerto closed the first half with pianist Orli Shaham. Lately several performances of this 1845 work have adopted judicious tempos, but Mr. Neale took a more conventional pace in each of the three movements. The orchestra sound never covered the soloist, and Ms. Shaham played aggressively in places, alternating the composer’s sforzando chords with chaste legato scales. The descending octaves in the opening movement’s cadenza (by Schumann) were telling, as were the off-beat accents and an occasional inner pianistic voice.

The brief slow Intermezzo: Andantino Grazioso was a gentle musical conversation between Ms. Shaham and the Orchestra, highlighted by a poetical theme played by cellist Nancy Bien, captivatingly reinforced by the violin section an octave higher. Lovely.

The finale is well known for tricky rhythms that can cause the soloist and conductor to part company, but here all went well though the soloist’s clarity in scales and arpeggios was diminished, and the tempo turned to a fleeting vivace. The fetching dance phrases towards the end were played with their necessary joy, and the Concerto moved to a boisterous and decisive conclusion. Ms. Shaham responded to three curtain calls, received flowers, and gave elbow bumps to some of the smiling musicians.

Beginning the concert with the U. S. National Anthem, Mr. Neale subsequently explained to the audience aspects of Ms. Montgomery’s 2014 “Banner,” a pastiche of themes lasting nine minutes and featuring a string quartet inside the chamber orchestra. The composer has done the same on YouTube videos, more extended and with verbal confusion that made Mr. Neale’s comments on the selection of manifold anthems and cultural references seem almost quaint.

Alas, Banner proved to be one of those works that is programmed for various reasons, but ultimately quickly disappears from even innovative orchestral repertoire. There was much contrast from the Quartet, notable solos from bass violin Robert Ashley and flutist MyungJu Yeo, and a mid-piece shout and foot stomp from the Symphony. Several string downward glissandos and lots of tremolo playing were heard, but the emotional message of the work was lost on much of the audience, and applause was perfunctory.