Bartók, Brahms, Janácek at the Santa Rosa Symphony

During my interview with Christopher O’Riley about his performance with the Santa Rosa Symphony of Bartók’s Piano Concerto no. 3, he warned of the difficulties involved in the concerto’s second movement: “It’s really important to get the mix right with the orchestra, and to have them participatory instead of deferentially,” he said. “It’s a real concerto for piano with orchestra, not piano and orchestra. And so hopefully we’ll get that right.”
O’Riley, who strode to the stage last night in a dramatic, long black button-up coat, handled Bartok’s swiftly shifting themes in the first movement with keen versatility. The second movement, as predicted, tested the delicate balance between O’Riley and the orchestra—truthfully, a strenuous challenge of musical ESP—but the seesaw only faltered a couple times during passages of whimsy, somber tones and mid-century blues lines. And the triumphant finale after the third movement brought the crowd to their feet as O’Riley determinedly yanked conductor Bruno Ferrandis off the podium to clasp hands, orchestra and pianist together sharing in the praise.
One of the nice things that Ferrandis has brought to the Santa Rosa Symphony is variety, and tonight’s set included Janácek’s suspense-ridden From the House of the Dead overture, played beautifully. (Incidentally, I watched Brian De Palma’s Sisters last week, mostly to hear Bernard Herrmann’s score, and the overture reminded me of Herrmann, famous for his work with Alfred Hitchcock.) Brooding pulses, high-pitched discord and yes—I’m not kidding—clanging steel chains, rattled in time to the music.
After the intermission, the orchestra was completely in its element for Brahms’ Symphony no. 1, full of sweeping passages, nice solos (particularly the flute) and a crescendo-busting, whiz-bang ending. Just when the night couldn’t have ended any better, it was announced that this very month marks the 80th anniversary of the Santa Rosa Symphony (which presented its first performance in April of 1928) and to mark the occasion there was free cake and champagne for everyone afterwards in the lobby. Right on!
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P.S. Christopher O’Riley, well-known as an interpreter of Radiohead, Nick Drake, and Elliott Smith, felt pretty weird about being billed as a “hipster” pianist. But I can understand why. After all, how many classical soloists know how to play Guided by Voices’ “Surgical Focus”? And how many classical soloists have this as their ringback music?: