The Santa Rosa Symphony under music director candidate Andrew Grams presented a program of lush European works Saturday night at Weill Hall that created a kaleidoscope of orchestral color as bright as the holiday lights shining on the hall.
The concert, which replaced December’s traditional choral program, offered two Romantic works by Rachmaninoff and Berlioz, and two French works by Ravel and Debussy. The clarity and simplicity of the French works were particularly well-suited to Grams’ restrained and elegant conducting style.
An agile presence on the podium, Grams conducts with a blend of precision and fluidity, bringing out the eloquence of the music while keeping a steady hand on the rhythmic groove. Clearly he is a musician’s musician, and his hands tell a story that is as fascinating to watch as it is to hear.
Demonstrating tight ensemble, the orchestra seemed to be with him through every measure and note, playing with bravado and tonal luster.
To that end, perhaps, the orchestra’s layout had been tweaked, with the cellos adjacent to the first violins on stage right and the basses behind them. The second violins sat directly across from the firsts, with the violas inside on stage left, with the harp and piano behind them.
This game of musical chairs, according to one musician, allowed each section to hear each other better — a key element for being able to play together.
The highlight of the evening came after intermission with Rachmaninoff’s “Symphonic Dances,” a three-part suite that stomps and waltzes its way through lyrical melodies and an uproarious riot of sound. The last major work the Russian composer lived to complete, the dances weave together feelings of joy and despair as the dour Russian — one of the great masters of melody — knew he was approaching death.
Last performed in 2007 under Music Conductor Bruno Ferrandis, the lively first movement Saturday featured a sinuous saxophone solo by Jordan Wardlaw, son of long-time symphony clarinetist Mark Wardlaw (who was working another gig). The twirling solo by concertmaster Joseph Edelberg in the troubled waltz of the second movement also sounded wonderful.
But the orchestra really hit its stride in the third movement, a Spanish-like dance combining a vibrant array of lush strings, sighing woodwinds, blaring brass and percussion, whirling its way like a cyclone to the exciting finale.
Before intermission, the guest soloist — Canadian pianist Stewart Goodyear, a graduate of the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia — attacked the piano keys in Ravel’s Concerto in G major in a manner alternately intense, fiery and lyrical, all in the right places.
The quick tempo and rhythmic vitality of the first movement made the Gershwin-inspired music sound new again, and Goodyear demonstrated a lovely, deft touch in the Mozartean second movement, using whispered dynamics and tempo rubato to weave a magical spell. All of the woodwind solos were delicious.
Grams, who conducted the slow movement without a baton, picked it up again for the brief but rambunctious third movement, which had even orchestra musicians bobbing their heads.
The program opened with Berlioz’s Le Roi Lear (King Lear) Grande Ouverture, which Grams introduced with a funny story about the composer’s ill-fated engagement to a woman who, in his absence in Rome, married someone else.