The Santa Rosa Symphony on Saturday night showcased inspired players, a sparkling piano soloist and a sensitive, empathetic conductor — Michael Christie, the fifth and final music director candidate to audition to succeed Bruno Ferrandis — but the true stars of the concert at the Green Music Center were the bustling cities and wide open prairies of America itself.
Opening with Leonard Bernstein’s tense and lyrical “On the Waterfront” Symphonic Suite and culminating with Dvorak’s bittersweet Symphony No. 9, “From the New World,” the Americana theme was writ large by Christie, who last led the symphony here in January 2015, also in an American program of works by composers Aaron Copland and Mark O’Connor.
Conducting with restraint and precision, Christie captured the American spirit — its determination, resourcefulness and optimism — with a steady rhythmic pulse. There were not a lot of extraneous gestures and scant facial expressions, but his body language communicated the feeling and the pulse (he often suggested the subdivided beats within a beat) loud and clear. And while his dynamics and tempos provided exciting contrasts, the music always sounded like it was speaking for itself, never reaching for the easy or overly dramatic.
One audience member commented that for the first time this season, he found his eyes riveted on the musicians rather than the conductor, perhaps pointing to a penchant for a democratic approach. Christie also seems to have a knack for making familiar works sound fresh by giving them new context.
There is perhaps no symphony more familiar than Dvorak’s No. 9, inspired by the “wide open spaces” of America as well as Dvorak’s intense nostalgic for his Czech homeland.
Under Christie, the beloved work had a relaxed, open feeling, evoking the waves of grain, the majestic mountains and the stolid strength of the American continent. From the start, the plodding tempo and hushed dynamics allowed the music to breathe. The string and woodwind sections seemed to be feeling rather than just playing the music and could take their time to polish their tone, shape their phrases and wring all the tender emotion out of the melodies. And, of course, there was a solid contingent of powerful brass to fire up the excitement at the climactic moments.
In the beloved second movement, it took a few seconds for the English horn to settle into the relaxed tempo. But once he did, there were few dry eyes in the house. This melody, inspired by a song written by a student of Dvorak’s (“Goin’ Home”), has an intensely spiritual quality that paired well with the Shaker simplicity of the hall.
The energy ratcheted up in the third movement, a whirling Czech dance, and continued through the stirring fourth movement, which Christie led with a bit more expression and passion but a steady hand on the baton.
Before the curtain-opener by Bernstein, the 43-year-old conductor introduced himself and the American framework of the program briefly, then let the solo French horn set the bittersweet tone of the dark, disconcerting “On the Waterfront.” This searing solo dissolved as the timpani blasted off to dramatize the violent waterfront of the docks of post-war Hoboken, New Jersey.
The percussion cut-offs were crisp, and the saxophone solo was at turns sexy, gritty and bold during this scrappy opening, which gave way to tender lyricism in the flute and strings echoing the love story of Bernstein’s better-known “West Side Story.”