Auburn Symphony soars at Mondavi show

By: Jeff Hudson, Special to the Journal
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Each year in the spring, the members of the Auburn Symphony — joined by several busloads of Placer County music lovers — take a trip to Davis, where the orchestra showcases itself with a performance at the Mondavi Center, the finest concert hall in the region, where the San Francisco Symphony visits annually, and touring European orchestras periodically stop and play. This year’s concert was on March 13, and featured conductor Michael Goodwin leading the Auburn Symphony through a trio of highly diverse works, giving a clear demonstration that this community orchestra can deliver convincing performances of music from very different eras. First up was Claude Debussy’s “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun,” a seminal work of French Impressionism from the early 1890s. Debussy started working on the piece a year or two after hearing a Javanese gamelan perform at a Paris exhibition. While “Afternoon of a Faun” doesn’t overtly emulate a Javanese sound (or call for the mallet-and-resonator instruments a gamelan ensemble typically entails), the music’s shimmering textures and dreamy sensibility nonetheless owes something to Debussy’s momentary glimpse into an exotic musical style from the far side of the world — leading him to rethink his own style, and break through to a new and distinctive languid sound (deemed “formless” by shortsighted musical conservatives of that day), opening a path explored by many other composers over the following century. This performance featured a luminous performance by principal flute Maquette Kuper (who teaches privately in Davis, and is a graduate of the New England Conservatory). Other wind instruments were also spotlighted — oboes, clarinets, bassoons, horns — all playing exposed passages (where any little mistake would stand out in high profile) and playing them cleanly. The hypnotic mood was sustained throughout, with Goodwin (his slender frame standing tall, using precise moves) conducting from memory. The Piano Concerto No. 2 by Franz Liszt presented an entirely different challenge. Grand and ostentatious, and designed to amaze and thrill (where the Debussy was languid and atmospheric), the Liszt presented conductor and orchestra, as well as soloist Richard Cionco, with swift passages packed with notes. Cionco — a Liszt specialist and professor at Sacramento State — handled the composer’s flamboyant keyboard part with both skill and tangible glee. Cionco’s fingers danced back and forth from the high end to the low, with Cionco periodically looking up to coordinate with Goodwin (who used a score for this one) as each of the short movements pivoted into the next. There was also a lovely cello solo from principal Alan Clark. It was an exciting performance. After intermission, Goodwin led the orchestra through the Symphony No. 5 by Dmitri Shostakovich — which presents a different set of demands than anything on the program’s first half, since a successful Shostakovich performance calls for a degree of musical sarcasm and Soviet-era gloom that are pretty far removed from the music of Debussy or Liszt. Goodwin, once again conducting from memory, set a relatively stately pace during the opening sections of the first movement, and didn’t go in for quite as much of the anguished nervousness (or even hysteria) that some conductors find in this portion of the piece. The second movement, with its “dancing bear” episodes for the low strings, highlighted by percussion and brass, was darkly comic. The third movement — a sad, slow Largo — came to an achingly beautiful conclusion, while the final movement wrapped everything up with a flashy finish (with timpanist Aaron Smith laying down the big beats). Concertmaster Kay Kyungha Lee showed smooth bow work throughout, soaring in her brief solo passages, as well as leading the strings through a well-plucked passage at one point. All in all, it was a satisfying and well-played concert — the Auburn Symphony is getting good results, handling the fast-and-loud passages as well as the slow-and-tender portions of the music with success. Let’s also note that the success of the concert was aided by the large and appreciative audience — the people in the seats were clearly concentrating on the music, and didn’t interfere with the performance by breaking into applause at inappropriate intervals. Jeff Hudson lives in Davis. He has been an arts correspondent with Capital Public Radio since 1995, and covers Mondavi Center events for the Davis Enterprise.