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Santa Rosa Symphony tells stories with gusto

The Santa Rosa Symphony, under Music Director Francesco Lecce-Chong, transformed the Green Music Center into a storytelling salon Saturday night, opening the second concert set of the season by laying bare the sorrow and joy of the Slavic soul with elegance and gusto.

As part of that narrative, the instruments onstage tried to emulate the human voice — alternately sobbing and crying, sighing and soothing — while utilizing a wide palette of musical colors, from the tinkling harp to the squawking klezmer clarinet.

Conducting with expansive gestures and clear beats, Lecce-Chong brought a rhythmic vitality and smooth cohesion to Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s popular orchestral suite, “Scheherazade,” during the second half of the program.

The prolific, Russian composer, who studied music theory with Tchaikovsky, scattered beguiling instrumental solos throughout the four-movement work. The principal players in the string, woodwind, brass and percussion sections polished them all to a fine burnish.

Rimsky-Korsakov’s personal world was steeped in the magical thinking of fairy tales and fantasy, and he put his musical talent to work creating colorful variations on simple folk tales.

“Scheherazade” was inspired by the female storyteller in the Middle Eastern folk tale collection, “Arabian Nights.” The eponymous narrator saves herself from death at the hands of her husband, the Sultan, by spinning out cliff-hanger tales each night. The Sultan had made a vow to put each of his wives to death during their first nuptial night, but in the end, he was so enchanted by her stories that he repudiated his vow.

During the dark, bass motif that opens the first movement, the brass section, representing the Sultan, entered with such resonance that the chairs on the third level were vibrating. Welcome back to the hall everyone!

Kudos also go to concertmaster Joe Edelberg, representing the storyteller herself, who voiced the opening melody with sweetness and eloquence, although intonation seemed to sag in a few places.

As the piece progressed and the sinuous violin returned, every note was spot on, and Edelberg tossed off the runs, spiccato arpeggios and double stops with crystal-clear clarity and control.

Other principal players deserving a shout-out for their solos include cellist Adelle-Akiko Kearns, flutist Kathleen Lane Reynolds, oboeist Laura Reynolds, clarinetist Roy Zajac, bassoonist Karla Ekholm and harpist Dan Levitan.

The first half of the program showcased world-class clarinetist, composer and klezmer band leader David Krakauer, who was originally scheduled to perform with the symphony in January. The concert was postponed, though, due to the pandemic.

Using every trick on his licorice stick, Krakauer opened the evening by taking the audience into the heart of a Jewish wedding with his no-holds-barred rendition of two traditional klezmer songs: “Der Heyser Bulgar” ("The Hot Bulgar") and “Der Gasn Nign” (“Street Song”).

In a private recital on Friday night, Krakauer described these folk tunes as “traditional hootin’ and hollerin’ klezmer music” and dedicated them to his Jewish grandparents and great-grandparents who “made that voyage across the ocean with only the shirts on their back.”

Krakauer started “Der Heyser Bulgar” with a lengthy, solo introduction played with joyful, over-the-top abandon, then settled down as a strings-only orchestra joined in to accompany him.

The clarinetist, who is regarded as one of the best on the planet, is a natural musician who connects immediately with his audience while hitting the soaring high notes, fleeting trills, breathtaking slides and improvisatory phrasing that are the hallmarks of klezmer music. It seems like there’s nothing he can’t do.

To get the sound he wants, Krakauer uses a special mouthpiece and has mastered the technique of circular breathing — inhaling through his nose while simultaneously pushing air out through his mouth using air stored in the cheeks — to produce a continuous tone without interruption.

With his composing and performing collaborator, pianist Kathleen Tagg, he also performed “Chassidic Dance” by Abraham Ellstein, a composer for Yiddish theater who, like Krakauer, was trying to make a bridge between classical and klezmer music back in the 1930s.

The work was short but satisfying, highlighted by lush, French-sounding textures and harmonies in the piano part played deftly by Tagg.

Just before intermission, the symphony gave the world premiere of “The Fretless Clarinet”: Concerto for Klezmer Clarinet and Orchestra written by Krakauer and Tagg and co-commissioned by the Santa Rosa Symphony, the Eugene Symphony and the Adele and John Gray Endowment Fund with support from Karen Brodsky and Mark Dierkhising of Santa Rosa.

The autobiographical work, which sums up Krakauer’s embrace of many musical genres over the past 30 years, was performed with gusto, but the orchestration was occasionally so dense that it was difficult to hear what was going on.

The gritty first movement, “Sanctuary City,” gives a nod to one of Krakauer’s idols, jazz clarinetist Sidney Bechet, and his other idol, Austrian-American klezmer clarinetist Naftule Brandwein. The chronicle of immigration struggles and the Black Lives Matter movement in New York City has a hard edge to it, and at times, the orchestra seemed to be dueling with the solo clarinet.

The second movement, “Mozart on the Judengasse,” offered more clarity and cohesion in the orchestration, as Krakauer tips his hat to Mozart’s clarinet quintet and clarinet concerto as well as to the Judengasse (Jewish street) he discovered close to Mozart’s home in Salzburg.

"Ancestral Grooves,“ the final movement, closed out the first half with a fun, blaring romp through American music, from Broadway and klezmer to speakeasy jazz and New Orleans Second Line.

It was an evening of great stories, and the symphony told them convincingly.

The Santa Rosa Symphony will repeat the program at 7:30 p.m. Monday in the Green Music Center’s Weill Hall at Sonoma State University in Rohnert Park. For tickets: 707- 546-8742 or tickets@srsymphony.org

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

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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