Symphony delights fans at Touro University

Review by Elizabeth WarnimontThe Benicia Herald
Special to The Herald
April 9, 2013

The Vallejo Symphony Orchestra culminated its 81st season with a return performance at Touro University’s Lander Hall in Vallejo on Sunday. The concert, titled “Storms and Passions,” included works by Schumann, Fauré and Tchaikovsky and featured VSO co-principal flautist Melanie Keller on solo flute.

The performance opened with a particularly passionate work by Schumann, “Overture to Manfred,” composed as an accompaniment to Lord Byron’s Romantic-era poem, “Manfred, a Dramatic Poem,” about a magician who could conjure spirits to do his bidding but could never find the forgiveness his soul most longed for. The piece opens with a few strong chords and repeatedly shifts between serene sounds that could represent Manfred’s mourning, and bright or angry passages, primarily in the winds, representing the character’s desperate longing. The piece concludes softly, with a gentle, lugubrious feel, suggesting the magician’s ultimate, sad demise.

Violins took center stage in the piece, demonstrating the group’s particular strength. In the second piece, flautist Keller showcased her abilities.

Composed in 1898 as a short work for flute and piano, Fauré’s “Fantaisie for Flute and Orchestra” is a “virtuoso showpiece,” according to VSO board member Mary Eichbauer; Maestro David Ramadanoff noted in a pre-performance talk that it was flautist Jean-Pierre Rampal who commissioned the orchestration of the piece in 1957 by L. Aubert.

Keller wowed the audience with the beautiful sound of her instrument, mastering its high-speed runs and extended trills and landing consistently and precisely on tempo.

The concert concluded with Tchaikovsky’s “Symphony No. 4,” which Ramadanoff describes as a fine example of the composer’s ability to express his heartfelt emotions in music, as well as a reflection of Beethoven’s influence. Tchaikovsky was Russia’s first full-time composer, Ramadanoff says, and the feeling of Russian folk music can be heard, along with the influence of Beethoven, particularly the art of ending a phrase on a major chord.

The first movement begins with blaring horns, a strong announcement of the theme, yet it is followed abruptly with soft, rolling strings. The pattern repeats itself throughout the movement, lulling the listener with lengthy, grand but low-volume, string-dominated sections, then reawakening with bursts of trumpet and other winds. The contrast can be likened to an onslaught of stampeding animals (lower strings and brass), interspersed with tranquil scenes of songbirds and kite tails reflected in the pretty flute and woodwind progressions — all underscored with muted-to-thunderous waves from the string sections.

The third movement is startlingly bright. Extensive use of pizzicato, or plucking, by all string sections creates a playful, cheerful mood, and the purer rhythms are soothing in their simplicity. When the flute makes its strong appearance, the pizzicato strings provide a remarkable accompaniment, resulting in a sound that is refreshing by both its unique nature and its happy, upbeat mood.

There were several new additions to the VSO family Sunday, including a few in the otherwise tightly knit string sections. The changes were apparent in a slightly looser, perhaps more elaborate underlying tone. There was a distinct freshness to the sound and it felt good, as if the new personalities were awakening a more personal expression from the ensemble.

The concert marked the end of the symphony’s 81st season, and conductor Ramadanoff’s 30th at the baton. His rich contribution to the city of Vallejo and its surrounding communities was recognized at a post-concert reception at the Coal Shed art gallery at Mare Island, where he was presented with a mayoral proclamation naming April 7, 2013 “David Ramadanoff Day.” The maestro was feted with cheers, cake and refreshments, capping off an all-around delightful afternoon of quality music and art.

The Vallejo Symphony Orchestra will continue its mini-concerts at Benicia and Vallejo elementary schools through June, then open its regular 2013-14 season with a concert of music from Mozart and Beethoven at the Empress Theatre in Vallejo on Oct. 12. For information about this and other VSO performances, call them at 643-4441 or visit the website at vallejosymphony.org.

Elizabeth Warnimont is a freelance writer specializing in the performing arts. She is a regular contributing writer for BAYSTAGES magazine and writes a weekly review for The Herald.