In these international times, what makes a piece of music American? For Michael Christie, the answer is that it needs to have at least premiered on these shores, if not been composed here. Thus the rationale for the “all-American” program that Christie — the fifth and final conducting candidate for the Santa Rosa Symphony — led on Saturday night at the Green Music Center.
The opening work, Leonard Bernstein’s suite from On the Waterfront, is truly American, and the closing, Dvořák’s “New World” symphony, is arguably so. But the centerpiece, Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto, stakes its claim to Americana by having been first performed in Chicago, even though it was composed in France. That seems a little thin until you realize that the final movement is infused with a yearning melody that sounds for all the world like an American parlor song.
Christie, himself an all-American from Buffalo, is an elegant conductor with balletic arm movements and a firm grasp of rhythm. He is at once restrained and expressive, an expert at using his undulating arms to lead the orchestra in thunderous crescendos and whispering diminuendos. His tempi are unflagging, and he always seems relaxed, even serene. His style was uniformly consistent, from the plangent opening of On the Waterfront to the glittering finale of “From the New World.”
On the Waterfront opened with a heartfelt French horn solo from Alex Camphouse, followed by a saxophone riff and then the full sound of the orchestra urged on by Christie. He altered moods and dynamics with ease, his supple arms changing course in midstream as if unaware of the laws of physics. At times his motions were so languid that he seemed to be moving through viscous air.
The orchestra played quite well, and their solos were superb, especially the off-stage reprise of the opening passage for French horn. In the movie, Marlon Brando famously claimed that he could have been a contender; but with Christie there was never any doubt.
After vigorous applause, the attention shifted to piano soloist Anna Fedorova, who glided onstage in a gossamer turquoise gown with a glittering multicolored top. Flinging back her lengthy brown hair, she plunged down to the keyboard — and was instantly drowned out by the orchestra. Despite the balance problems, which were finally solved in the third movement, Fedorova displayed impressive command of her instrument, wriggling through Prokofiev’s demanding score with nary a scratch. The memorable opening theme, taken at a sprint, was both fiery and compelling.
Fedorova is not a particularly demonstrative performer. She spent most of her time staring intently at the keyboard, her head often obscured by her hair. This introverted style worked well in the tricky passages, but it proved a barrier in the slower parts, particularly the second movement. Notes that should have rung out felt muted, and excessive pedaling muddied the sound.
Fortunately, both imbalance and introversion fell away in the Allegro con fuoco final movement. Christie toned down the orchestral volume and Fedorova emerged from her shell. She took it easy on the pedal and became much more expressive, with spellbinding trills and varied attacks. Changing abruptly to play the melancholic parlor tune at the heart of the movement, Fedorova kept driving forward to the furious ending, prompting a standing ovation.
Christie offered an alternative to the usual intermission by interviewing Fedorova onstage after the performance. They engaged in the usual musical pleasantries, but a question from the audience prompted the revelation that they had met for the first time on Thursday and had only practiced the concerto for a few hours, sandwiched around a recital by Fedorova on Friday night. Perhaps they could have fixed the balance problems if they’d had more time.
The “New World” is performed so often that previous performances are still ringing in your ears each time you hear it anew. This remembrance can be a danger for conductors seeking to put their own stamp on Dvořák’s venerable masterpiece, but Christie seemed undaunted by the risk.
Christie’s fluidity on the podium dominated the performance. His motions were precise and elegant, and the sound he elicited was solid and unified, most notably among the strings. Their bows moved uniformly as they ranged from silken tones to crisp arpeggios.
The unanimity of sound was nowhere more evident than in the unhurried second movement, which opened with a gorgeous English horn solo from Jesse Barrett. The subsequent playing was hushed and ethereal as the glorious melody flowed throughout the orchestra. The pace from Christie was slow, but the ensemble held steady all the way through a tremendous swell near the end.
Oddly, the English horn sat silent for the rest of the symphony, the only static element in a bursting onrush of sound. The third movement was sprightly, and the rapid fourth was driven by strong and heraldic brass. Christie was fun to watch as he summoned crescendo after crescendo in a whirlwind of orchestral interplay. The ovation at the end was heartfelt and sustained.