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SYMPHONY REVIEW
Santa Rosa Symphony / Sunday, January 9, 2022
Francesco Lecce-Chong, conductor. Olga Kern, piano

Pianit Olga Kern

THE SHOW MUST GO ON

by Steve Osborn
Sunday, January 9, 2022

The Jan. 9 Santa Rosa Symphony concert was supposed to feature the world premiere of Gabriella Smith’s first symphony, but it ended up featuring another type of premiere: a concert that was conceived, rehearsed and performed in less than eight hours.

Symphony staff learned on Sunday morning that some of their wind players might have been exposed to Covid, so the decision was made to replace the scheduled concert with a strings-only version, supplemented with piano pieces played by the scheduled soloist, Olga Kern.

As conductor Francesco Lecce-Chong explained from the podium, he selected the string pieces in about two hours on Sunday morning and then came to Weill Hall to rehearse them. That rehearsal was ongoing on 3 p.m., so the start time was pushed back to 3:30.

After the audience settled in, the orchestra launched into a spritely rendition of Mozart’s early Divertimento for String Orchestra, K.136, written when he was 16. Despite the composer’s tender age, the divertimento is relatively difficult to play well, so it was a pleasure to hear the string players sustain a remarkable unanimity throughout, with nary a wrong note or intonation problem to be heard. The close attention to dynamics and phrasing also paid off. How could a performance be this good with such scant rehearsal? The answer is that the Symphony musicians possess consummate skill and artistry.

After the jovial divertimento, Mr. Lecce-Chong introduced a somber note by explaining that the next piece would be dedicated to the memory of Sara Mitchell, the Symphony’s longtime director of marketing, who died in December. The piece turned out to be Barber’s “Adagio for Strings,” again in an impeccable performance that belied its brief rehearsal. The opening notes were serene, leading to a long crescendo in which each line was distinct. When the crescendo reached its climax, the sound shimmered across the auditorium, and its memory filled the long pause before the Adagio resumed. The ending was ethereal.

The conductor set the background for the next piece by noting that he recently married Chloe Tula, a concert harpist with her own career. She happened to be working on Debussy’s “Sacred and Profane Dances” for harp and string orchestra, and she agreed to play it just one hour before the performance.

A harp appeared on stage, followed shortly afterward by Ms. Tula, clad in a glittering silvery gown. Her performance was even more glittering, with her elegant playing easily heard over the orchestral accompaniment. Her phrasing was sensitive and her dynamic control impressive, but her most important asset was capturing the spirit of Debussy’s dances.

Russian pianist Olga Kern was scheduled to play Beethoven’s “Emperor” concerto, but she ended up with a string orchestra version of the famous 18th variation from Rachmaninoff’s “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.” Both Ms. Kern, who wore a tight-fitting dress with a voluminous skirt, and the orchestra luxuriated in the variation’s calm and serenity. Kern played the gorgeous melody with a varied attack, using pregnant pauses between notes to great effect.

The orchestra left the stage, and the concert transformed itself into a mostly Russian piano recital, with Ms. Kern introducing the numbers from the stage. First up were five more pieces by Rachmaninoff: one of the “Moments Musicaux” (op. 16); the Op. 10 Barcarolle; a transcription of Mussorgsky’s Hopak; one of the Op. 33 “Etudes-tableaux”; and the “Polichinelle” (Op. 3, No. 3).

Ms. Kern has an authoritative stage presence. She sits straight on the piano bench with her arms close to her sides, relying on her fingers and forearms for most of the action. She occasionally sways from side to side but is never extravagant in her motions, except when she lifts off the bench during especially dramatic passages. Unfortunately her voluminous skirt blocked this reviewer’s view of the pedals, but her feet sounded quite busy, with frequent stops on the sustain pedal.

Of the five Rachmaninoff pieces, the Barcarolle was the standout. The artist played the melody in her left hand with sustained trills in the right. Her frequent hand crossings were a delight to behold, with her left hand floating down precisely to its targeted keys. The five short Rachmaninoff works led to Tchaikovsky’s “Meditation” (op. 72, No. 55), which was played with admirable restraint. The extended trill at the end displayed both solid technique and meditative calm.

Next up were two Op. 42 Scriabin etudes, Numbers 4 and 5. Ms. Kern told the audience that number 4 was like listening to twinkling stars, whereas number 5 was something she’d played since childhood. Her pianissimos in the first etude were even more compelling that her many fortissimos in the Rachmaninoff pieces, and her rolling momentum in the second complemented a long crescendo to the climax.

The program proper concluded with Balakirev’s towering “Islamey” from 1865,” notorious among pianists for its technical difficulty. Ms. Kern started at a furious pace that proved unrelenting. It was hard to believe that her hands were playing so many notes as they flew up and down the keyboard. The power of her attack was awe-inspiring, especially when she levitated off the bench after delivering one of her withering blows.

Ms. Kern was undeterred by the prospect of encores, of which there were four: a Prokofiev etude; Lyadov’s charming miniature “Musical Snuffbox”; Moszkowski’s staccato study “Sparks,” Op. 36, No. 6; and Rachmaninoff’s transcription of Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Flight of the Bumble Bee.” Each was delivered with fervor and technical brilliance. Kern said she could have played more, but darkness was descending, so the last-minute concert came to a close.