For Graeme Jenkins, less is often more.
The fourth candidate to replace Bruno Ferrandis at the helm of the Santa Rosa Symphony was a model of restraint Saturday evening as he guided the ensemble through an invigorating Haydn symphony, a beloved Mozart concerto with pianist Orli Shaham and Bartók’s magnificent “Concerto for Orchestra.”
The English-born conductor was music director of the Dallas Opera from 1994-2013, has directed opera productions in the United Kingdom, Europe and the U.S., and conducted for major European orchestras.
On the podium, Jenkins, noted for his interpretations of Mozart, kept the orchestral volume down, allowing Shaham’s spirited and elegant performance of Mozart’s 21st piano concerto to resonate throughout the hall.
This continuity between orchestra and soloist came to the fore in the andante second movement. Shaham repeated the triplets with her left hand, allowing the melody to slowly emerge from her right. The effect was instantly ethereal, inducing a rapt silence from the audience. The mood quickly shifted in the vivace finale, where Jenkins set a blistering tempo. Nobody stumbled or slowed in a thrilling race to the finish.
The concert opened with Haydn’s playful Military Symphony, which seems to have been programmed as a contrast to the wartime background of the Bartók concerto in the second half. Jenkins marched lightly through Haydn’s intricate score, eliciting impeccable and graceful playing from the musicians. The strings displayed remarkable unanimity, but the militaristic percussion stole the show. The sparkling finale had a relentless forward motion that led to strong applause.
After intermission, the orchestra became its own soloist in Bartók’s “Concerto for Orchestra,” which highlights every section of the ensemble over a five-movement span. Bartók wrote the concerto during 1943 in upstate New York, after fleeing his native Hungary to escape Nazi persecution.
Before the performance, Jenkins offered an illuminating introduction, complete with musical samples, about the genesis and narrative of the piece, which he believes depicts the Nazi invasion of Hungary and its bitter aftermath. Although many scholars dispute that interpretation, it served as a useful guide to the concerto’s dense complexity.
Jenkins let the music speak for itself. He coaxed a strong opening from the basses and cellos, followed by a scintillating crescendo and accelerando as the orchestra roared to life. As before, his conducting was steady and restrained, and he managed the perpetually shifting rhythms with ease. Principal oboist Laura Reynolds was outstanding in the first of many solos, as was the entire brass section.
The second movement features a series of duets, beginning with the bassoons. In the shimmering third movement, the focus shifted to the viola section, which played its elegiac theme with searing intensity.
The violas and oboes again took the lead in the fourth movement, featuring dazzling interplay between various sections of the orchestra.
Just as he had in the vivace finale of the Mozart concerto, Jenkins set a ferocious pace for the presto finale of the Bartók. This orchestral showpiece begins with a memorable fanfare from the trumpets, followed by an ornate fugue from the strings. Jenkins kept urging the orchestra to play faster, resulting in spine-tingling passages. The ending, with its eerie swooshing sounds and dense orchestration, was mesmerizing, and was followed by a sustained standing ovation.
The Saturday program will repeat at 3 p.m. Monday at the Green Music Center’s Weill Hall, Sonoma State University.
Tickets start at $29.
For more information call 707-546-8742.