Review: New Santa Rosa Symphony music director proves mettle at concert

A series of question marks has hovered above the Santa Rosa Symphony over the past year. How quickly will its youthful, new music director, Francesco Lecce-Chong, make his mark during his first season with the orchestra?

Will the fifth conductor in the symphony’s 91-year history be able to live up to the hype that he offers “the whole package” as a musical collaborator and community builder?

Will he be able to re-create the magic of his try-out concerts in October 2017?

Saturday night, in his third and final concert set of the season at the Green Music Center, Lecce-Chong left no doubt that the magic of his debut was no fluke. Even without a romantic warhorse like Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4, he proved his mettle by pouring new life into Mozart’s tragic Symphony No. 40 and artfully molding the pacing and phrasing of Mahler’s idyllic Symphony No. 4.

Both, it should be noted, were conducted without a score - the one-hour-long Mahler with a baton, the 35-minute Mozart with hands only. Like all of the classical music concerts this season, the program was planned by Lecce-Chong’s predecessor, Bruno Ferrandis, known for his love of dramatic contrasts within concerts.

Despite entering the season as a pinch-hitter, Lecce-Chong, 31, poured his heart and soul into the game, hitting a home run with both works. The orchestra sounded splendid - from individual solos to overall ensemble - and met the thorny challenges of each work with athletic finesse and obvious enthusiasm.

The late symphony by Mozart juxtaposes sunny gentility with rough fury, while the early symphony by Mahler, considered the conflicted composer’s lightest and most accessible, offers a strange blend of transcendent beauty undermined by grotesque humor. It is Mahler, after all.

Even before the season started, Lecce-Chong knew this program would push him and the orchestra to the limit and force them to take their music-making to a new level. But he didn’t back down.

“That’s a beast of a program,” he said in an interview this fall. “I’m glad I was available for that week.”

Mozart is always a litmus test for players, who must perform the most difficult, transparent music with utter relaxation and “seeming” ease. With Lecce-Chong at the helm, the music never seemed rushed - from the elegant first movement to the furious finale - even when traveling at high velocity.

But the orchestra really hit its rhythmic groove in the second movement, a lilting Andante that Lecce-Chong directed with a light but precise touch. In the steely third movement, the orchestra started to break loose from the transparent Mozart mold with a bigger sound, and by the jaunty finale. The pregnant pauses, fierce attacks and dynamic contrasts made the work sound groundbreaking and new.

Mahler’s Symphony No. 4, last performed by the symphony in 1999, was not a natural fit for Lecce-Chong, who has admitted he connects with the more exciting and dramatic Symphonies No. 1 and 5 of Mahler, which he has conducted before. Symphony No. 4 is a lovely little fairy tale, with occasional nightmarish moments, that demands delicacy and transparency and risks putting the audience to sleep if it is not paced correctly.

It is a tribute to the orchestra’s hard work and preparation that even the children in the audience stayed awake for this hourlong work, performed after intermission. Most people leaned forward in their seats to hear every wailing clarinet line, bellowing horn blast and plucky bass pizzicato.

Mahler’s Symphony No. 4 opens in a carefree manner, with sleigh bells and graceful, Viennese melodies, then turns grotesque in the scherzo, as an unusually tuned solo violin - played with verve by concertmaster Joe Edelberg - portrays a skeleton playing the fiddle (“Death”) and leads a danse macabre.

Consolation arrives, however, in the beautiful, long phrases of the third movement. Under Lecce-Chong’s baton, the melodies seamlessly rose and fell, dissolved and coalesced again with feathery transparence, leading to a sudden explosion of horns and trumpets. This prepares the audience for the fourth movement, a short, simple song about a child’s naive view of heaven.

Soprano Marie Plette did not give an entirely persuasive interpretation of the poem. It was difficult to hear her above the orchestra, but the unfinale-like finale nevertheless concluded with a natural, easy flow. Like all fairy tales, it seemed to lure eyelids into a blissful sleep, in a good way.

To open the concert, a dozen members of the brass section performed two antiphonal fanfares from Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu: “Day Signal” and “Night Signal.” The short works provided a pleasant curtain-opener, with the beautifully blended tones of the brass reverberating impressively throughout the sensitive hall.

Afterward, Lecce-Chong spoke to the audience, thanking them for their support, highlighting concerts to come (including a family concert he will lead in April) and giving a short introduction to Mahler’s 4th Symphony. He recounted how the audience at the premiere met the first two movements with hissing, then offered tepid applause after the third. “The audience was kind of done with Mahler at the time,” he said.

Obviously, we are just beginning our adventure with Lecce-Chong, and it will be exciting to see the places he will take us in the future. If this program is any indication, he’s not afraid to take a few risks.

The Santa Rosa Symphony will repeat this concert program at 7:30 p.m. Monday at the Green Music Center’s Weill Hall.

Diane Peterson

Features, The Press Democrat

I’m interested in the home kitchen, from sheet-pan suppers to the latest food trends. Food encompasses the world, its many cultures, languages and history. It is both essential and sensual. I also have my fingers on the pulse of classical music in Sonoma County, from student mariachi bands to jazz crossover and symphonic sounds. It’s all a rich gumbo, redolent of the many cultures that make up our country and the world.

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