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Chen navigates her way through “journey” with Santa Rosa Symphony

Mei-Ann Chen conducts the Santa Rosa Symphony performing Blue Cathedral by composer Jennifer Higdon at Weill Hall at Sonoma State University's Green Music Center in Rohnert Park, California on Saturday, November 4, 2017. Maestra Chen is the second of five candidates vying for the role of conductor of the Santa Rosa Symphony. (Alvin Jornada / The Press Democrat)

DIANE PETERSON,

With music director candidate Mei-Ann Chen at the helm, the Santa Rosa Symphony whisked the audience off on an exotic voyage Saturday at Weill Hall to destinations ranging from Russia and Italy to a glass cathedral in the sky.

The evening seemed to fly by as the spirited Chen — the second of five finalists to try out with the orchestra this season to succeed Bruno Ferrandis — proved her prowess as a navigator. Chen cut a crisp and elegant figure on the podium, dressed in a long black jacket and pants. Her controlled yet fluid conducting style combined clear cues and beats with sweeping, circular gestures reminiscent of the great maestro Seiji Ozawa.

After being introduced by Board Chair Jamei Haswell, who lost her home in the October wildfires, Chen launched the musical journey with a cheerful 1954 work, “Festive Overture” by Shostakovich. This work expresses the freedom the composer feels of getting out from under Stalin’s boots.

After the short work, Chen spoke to the audience about the program’s emotional journey, from the exuberance of Mendelssohn’s “Italian” Symphony No. 4 to the life-affirming “blue cathedral” of Jennifer Higdon and the heartwarming melodies of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1.

The troubled life of Tchaikovsky, she noted, proves that “something tragic can lead to something beautiful.” Then she urged audience members to give their neighbors a hug.

“Love is the foundation of any rebuilding,” she said. “Let’s rebuild together.”

The Tchaikovsky concerto in B-flat minor may sound trite to some — its opening melody is so well known that even those who have never heard a note of classical music can hum it — but the rendition by Armenian pianist Nareh Arghamanyan was anything but.

Wringing all the emotion out of the virtuoso work, Arghamanyan strode through the massive chords of the opening, then delivered each phrase with eloquence and clarity. The woodwind soloists shone in both the first movement and the enchanting second movement, where the strings provided interesting timbres during the pizzicato and muted sections. Chen kept dynamics balanced, but the ensemble seemed to be a bit ragged at times. The pianist plunged into the finale at a brisk pace, then Chen drove it home with an exhilarating accelerando at the end. Like a ride on the Orient Express and the composer himself, this sumptuous work carries Western tradition into the East.

After an enthusiastic standing ovation, Arghamanyan dedicated her encore — the melancholic “October” from Tchaikovsky’s “The Seasons” — to the victims of the wildfires.

The second half opened with Higdon’s airy “blue cathedral,” composed as a cathartic tribute to her younger brother, who died in 1998. Since its premiere in 2000, it has become Higdon’s most popular work.

The short, accessible piece opens with the percussion section on triangle, glockenspiel and other tinkling instruments. Then strings and winds enter, evoking an open, Coplandesque soundscape. The music slides upward as the listener enters a glass cathedral in the sky and is swept ever upward, then ends with a big, brass fanfare, dissolving slowly into the ringing of Chinese hand bells and crystal glasses. Like a backpacking trek into the mountains, this piece goes up but we’re not sure if it ever makes it back.

Bringing the audience down to earth, Chen landed the concert smoothly with Mendelssohn’s sunny Symphony No. 4, conducting from memory and sculpting the sound with her hands. The passionate first movement drew applause, but the orchestra really hit its groove in the graceful third and dancing fourth movements.

Like a Lamborghini, the musicians hugged the winding curves of the intricate score with fearless abandon.

Staff writer Diane Peterson can be reached at 707-521-5287 or diane.peterson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @dianepete56.