The first unusual sight to greet patrons at the Santa Rosa Symphony’s Nov. 6 concert was a bare-bones drum set at the front of the stage. The second was watching the musicians stomp their feet when a fundraising announcement mentioned that the Symphony League provides refreshments during rehearsals. As it turned out, they were just getting warmed up for a boisterously percussive concert that featured a fair amount of foot stomping.
The opener was a delightful rendition of George Gershwin’s “Promenade (Walking the Dog),” with an excellent solo from principal clarinetist Roy Zajac. Conductor Francesco Lecce-Chong established a solid strolling beat, punctuated by a snare drum played with brushes. The mood was jovial but the piece all too brief.
After the applause settled down, soloist Bella Hristova walked onstage to play the Violin Concerto in D Major by Wynton Marsalis. Over a quiescent opening featuring low strings and harp, she intoned a beautiful melody on her low G string that showed off her rich tone, luxurious vibrato, and confident phrasing. The melodic material was slow and jazz-infused, with frequent blue notes and occasional downward glissandos.
The “Rhapsody” movement’s faster section featured brief, piquant phrases from the upper reaches of the violin, leading to a march that sounded like a funeral procession, complete with whistle. Hristova then embarked on a spirited cadenza with rock-solid harmonics and double stops and the occasional phrase that harkened to the opening theme. Sure enough, the harp entered, and we were back to the beginning with its melancholic descending phrases. The wonderful blend of sound soon faded away, only to be replaced instantly by drums, along with foot stomping from the orchestra. Rather than a new movement, the passage turned out to be a brief coda where Hristova shot back to the top of her instrument and moved past the melancholy of the descending lines.
The next movement, “Rondo Burlesque,” started with a sharp burst from the orchestra, culminating with improbable sounds emanating from Hristova’s violin, perhaps from playing over or behind the violin’s bridge. Her fingers were a blur, a clear sign of her boundless energy as she embarked on another cadenza. Midway through, she sauntered over to the drum set at the front of the stage, to which an orchestral percussionist had sauntered as well. The orchestra fell quiet as drummer and violinist engaged in an unlikely duet. Hristova began to play pizzicato, using what might be called “pizzimoltos” to make herself heard throughout the hall. Her technique was astonishing, particularly when she began mixing in finger pizzicatos to double the number of notes being plucked. The duet concluded as Hristova drifted back toward the orchestra.
The third movement, “Blues,” began without pause, and the descending phrases and blue notes of the opening came back to the fore. The movement evolved into one long solo for the violin, with the orchestra accompanying her from the deep, as witness the frequent outbursts from the contrabassoon. Hristova’s phrases kept moving downward, leading to inevitable silence and a final pluck.
Marsalis opted for a fourth movement, so the orchestra launched into “Hootenanny,” an intricate, raucous, and exuberant cure for the blues. Lecce-Chong did a masterful job of keeping all the parts in sync, especially during the sustained call-and-response between Hristova and the orchestra and her wonderful duet with principal violist Elizabeth Prior. Despite the complexity, the ensemble surged forward with one voice. Toward the end, the entire brass section stood up to make its sound even bolder than it already was.
The orchestra returned to play Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony. In the somber Adagio that opens the work, the orchestral sound was unified, with all sections playing crisply and Zajac offering another beautiful solo. Suddenly, the tempo and the music shifted into high gear as the opening theme returned with a vengeance. Lecce-Chong was rock-solid as he negotiated this transformation, and so were the musicians. Gradually the music returned to the serenity of the opening and another poignant clarinet solo.
The “Allegro con grazia” second movement is supposed to be light and graceful, but this performance was a bit slow. Perhaps the 5/4 time signature was to blame, or even general fatigue, but the lower instruments dragged slightly, holding everyone else back.
The playing sped up considerably in the famous “Allegro molto vivace” third movement. The orchestra became an intricate machine that bounced the infectious seven-note phrase back and forth, up and down. Lecce-Chong coaxed tremendous crescendos and decrescendos out of the orchestra, even as he urged the players forward. The intricacy of the enterprise was evident in the violins’ bowing. Phrases were articulated through repeated downbows, and even the shortest notes were played separately. The constant buildup and kinetic energy led to a forceful ending, followed by dead silence.
The silent transition to the “Adagio lamentoso” fourth movement paid off. The somber melodies were played dramatically, and Lecce-Chong exhorted his musicians through compact upper-body movements. They responded in kind all the way to the shattering conclusion.