Mother Russia Visits Vallejo

Mark Wardlaw on September 25, 2007

Pianist Jon Nakamatsu sparkled, and some of the Bay Area’s top freelance players also were in fine form as the Vallejo Symphony Orchestra opened its 2007-2008 season. Inaugurating his 25th year on the podium, the affable and engaging David Ramadanoff led an all-Russian program of familiar but rewarding fare. Nakamatsu, a true star in the classical music firmament, was spectacular in Rachmaninov’s devilishly difficult Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. The gold medalist of the 10th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in 1997 dazzled a wildly appreciative audience with his commanding dexterity, rhythmic precision, and crystal clear phrasing.

Transitioning seamlessly through the gargantuan work’s 26 sections, including 24 variations, this Nakamatsu-Ramadanoff collaboration was memorable for its realization of Rachmaninov’s ingenious architecture and shimmering orchestration. Indeed, Rachmaninov’s concertos, along with those of fellow Russian composers such as Prokofiev and Shostakovich, gifted orchestral players with some of the most important, colorful writing in the entire body of symphonic masterpieces. And the members of this orchestra, for the most part, delivered the goods. The violins deftly executed the sprightly opening theme with a pleasingly puckish verve.

The reflective variations featured subtle and expressive playing from the clarinets, solo oboe, and English horn. And I was also impressed with the silky sound of the cello section. These moments were particularly satisfying because the piano’s huge sound often overwhelmed the orchestra, particularly the woodwind section. However, Nakamatsu was anything but heavy-handed. Displaying ridiculous levels of rhythmic meticulousness, he negotiated the treacherous octave unison passages in a seemingly effortless display of nimble virtuosity. He was a sensitive accompanist during the orchestral solo turns, and when Nakamatsu arrived at the famous D-flat major theme (popularized in the 1980 movie Somewhere in Time), he resisted the temptation to infuse this lush melody with the sort of mushy sentimentality it seems to induce from lesser players.

Takeoff at Hogan Auditorium

The concert began robustly with Rimsky-Korsakov’s beloved Capriccio Espagnol. Its famous solos are on every instrument’s audition list, and several principal players dispatched their duties with top-notch artistry and aplomb. Clarinetist Diane Maltester was superb, as was Concertmaster Kathleen Comalli Dillon. Flutist Holly Nichols and the harpist Randall Pratt also delivered strong performances. The members of the percussion section were at the top of their game, but their unfortunate positioning at the front of the stage, immediately behind the violins due to space limitations, imposed a bit of a jangled quality on this reading. The effect was something akin to a gypsy caravan passing through a small town square.

Making matters worse, the entire string section was seated in front of Hogan Auditorium’s proscenium, with the winds behind that arch and the brass section on risers, which created balance problems all night. While the strings often produced a lustrous, rich sound and the brass section contributed many fine ensemble passages, all too often these sections buried the winds and middle strings. The plight of freelance (or so-called “Freeway Philharmonic”) symphonic musicians is that they must learn to play in many different halls, each vastly different from the other. For instance, Hogan Auditorium has the acoustic properties of an airport hangar.

For the sake of illustration, many of these players also toil in Santa Rosa’s abominable Wells Fargo Center (née the Luther Burbank Center), which is infamous for its lifeless, large-closet ambience. Hogan’s cavernous dimensions tend to create a sonic jet stream that is apparently difficult to temper, and to my ears this orchestra’s forte passages often sounded bright and forced as a consequence. On the other hand, many soft interludes took wing and resonated with a pleasing intimacy. I moved to the balcony for Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 2 (“The Little Russian”) in the hope that a seat more distant from the stage would mitigate some of the balance problems I observed during the first half.

My new location made it easier to hear inner voices, such as bassoons and violas, but the orchestra exhibited the same tendencies to force the loud passages. Maestro Ramadanoff, as he did before each piece, endeared himself to the audience with an enthusiastic explanation of this folk-song-inspired staple of the repertoire. A work of this difficulty and complexity, following a challenging first half, is certain to expose the unavoidable fact that even an ensemble of fine players will scuffle when they are limited to two rehearsals and one dress rehearsal in preparation for a single concert. The most significant casualties were inconsistent rhythm (especially in hemiolas) and unmatched note lengths from one section to another.

I was even more troubled by the significant loss of tempo in each of the last three movements. The second movement, after a promising start, became noticeably stodgy as it lost propulsion. Yet, this movement also yielded some lovely blends between the winds, violas, and cellos. The finale was similarly unsteady, particularly in its lopsided second theme that bogged down every time it appeared. Bonnie Lockett’s stellar piccolo playing helped to ensure a rousing conclusion. On a final note, the hardworking staff of the Vallejo Symphony could have benefited from some editing of the printed programs they handed out. All of the first chair players were listed as “principles” (I know there’s a joke in there somewhere) and several percussionists probably were surprised to find their first and last names transposed.

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