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Concert Review: The Napa Valley Symphony

The Napa Valley Symphony Orchestra

Asher Raboy, conductor

Stefan Milenkovich, violin

Peter Soave, bandoneón


William Walton "Spitfire" Prelude and Fugue
Erich Wolfgang Korngold Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 35

Moderato nobile
Romance: Andante
Finale: Allegro assai vivace

Astor Piazzolla: Concerto for Bandoneón and Orchestra

    Allegro marcato
Nino Rota Sinfonia sopra una Canzone d'amore
    Allegro vivace
    Andante sostenuto
    Allegro impetuoso
Lincoln Theater
California Veterans Home,
Yountville, California, USA
February 6 & 8, 2000

Review by Dr. Paul A. Magistretti :

On February 6, 2000 the Napa Symphony Orchestra, a fine regional company of eighty members played a concert at which Peter Soave (known throughout the world as one of America's finest classical free-reed performers) was one of the guest soloists. The hall (cap. 1000) was filled for the event, which was part of an ongoing series of concerts under the direction of Conductor Asher Raboy.

The program had a cinematic theme opening with Sir William Walton's Spitfire, Prelude and Fugue. Sir William wrote fourteen film scores during his career including Olivier's Henry V, Hamlet and Richard III. He extracted the evening's performance piece from the score of The First of the Few (1942), which told the story of R. J. Mitchell, the designer of the Spitfire fighter plane. It supplied some nice moments and while not uninteresting it was by nature episodic and lacking in an overall sense of form and meaning. Peggy Brady, First Violin & Concertmaster, had an especially nice solo that almost centered the piece; however, I was reminded that often a film score depends as much on the images as the images depend on the music. The Prelude was intended to play under the titles and it had a nice open feeling, a quality denoting the start of something. But the subsequent manner in which the music progressed from prelude to finale by way of a fugue wasn't convincing without the film's visuals. It was nice music, but far from what Prokofiev did when extracting an oratorio from the score of Eisenstein's Alexander Nevsky. The orchestra seemed a bit sluggish, too, as if warming up, or as if not as well rehearsed and sure as one would have hoped .

The Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 35 by Erich Wolfgang Korngold was an interesting pastiche in four movements from Hollywood (via reworked themes from his movies: Another Dawn, 1937; Juarez, 1939; Anthony Adverse, 1939 and The Prince and the Pauper, 1937) with dollops of Vienna and Richard Strauss. Korngold was one of the last of the romantic composers and while acclaim for his work was undercut during his lifetime by his movie success and a prejudice against popular entertainment sources; the work wears quite well from our perspective today. It wasn't difficult music either to play or to listen to and the young soloist (23), Stefan Milenkovich (from the sometime Republic of Yugoslavia) and a current student at the Julliard School of Professional Studies under the tutelage of famed teacher, Dorothy Delay, made it sing. The orchestra, too, was solid in its accompaniment with the various orchestral sections working nicely and more fluently in part than they had all together on the Walton piece. Mr. Milenkovich is a talented, young performer who should have a long and important career. His recent recording of Bach's Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin has been well received and reveals both virtuosity and depth.

Peter Soave took the stage after intermission to play Astor Piazzolla's Aconcagua, Concerto for Bandoneon, which was written in 1979 and garnered Maestro Piazzolla the title of "the Villa-Lobos of Argentina." The concerto is comprised of three movements based on the milonga, the improvised song of the Argentine. According to the notes by Tom Illgen: "The tango's characteristic elements that are present throughout - the melancholy alternation between minor and major, the extreme, disjunctive articulation, expressive solo lines and the pensive rubato - make the concerto one of Piazzolla's most attractive compositions." Mr. Soave is thoroughly accomplished on the bandoneon and is quickly matching on his new instrument the power and facility he has on the bayan. He played well, with depth and feeling, making the greatest impact during his solos.

I felt, however, that the full potential of the performance was missed due to a sound problem. The bandoneon didn't soar above the orchestra as it must - it wasn't a matter of performance, but of volume and sonority. At times the bandoneon was totally obscured and I doubt that more rehearsals and holding the orchestra down would have helped - after all, the music is supposed to take command, flood the hall and make a passionate statement. The disparity of levels between soloist and orchestra led me to some thoughts. First, Mr. Soave plays a dry tuned instrument and I wondered if musette tuning would help him cut through the other sounds - I wondered if the derivation of detuning was born of just such a necessity - the need to separate the free reed sound from the sonorities of strings and woodwinds. Second, much of the problem could have been solved with amplification - Piazzolla was especially careful about such matters during his performances with large ensembles. He was attentive, as well, to the sound level of his instrument in quintet performances where the sonorities were not as competitive (i.e., piano, guitar, bass, violin and bandoneon). Anyone knows that one on one it's impossible for a bandoneon to compete with a piano and violin. So, while Mr. Soave played well, he wasn't well heard and that carried pathos in a way similar to Willy Loman's expression of being "liked, but not well liked."

Offered for your consideration: until the sonic focus of the accordion family of instruments is enhanced, free reed players must be very conscious of their acoustic situation. A violinist's ff holes are his/her point of sonic focus and when they're pointed at the audience - ta-dah - you hear every note. Mr. Milenkovich's violin had no problems soaring over the orchestra. A single flute or even an oboe has no problem declaring itself through unique sonority and timbre and emerging from the ensemble. Prior to the concert a flautist was practicing outside on the lawn and from a hundred yards a way I heard its vibrant sound and distinctive timbre in a way no accordion could equal in a similar situation. Let's face it, the bandoneon's tiny reeds with 100 + ports to the left and right of the instrument and parallel to the audience create an audile paradox - the primary focus of their sound is to the left and right of the performer. On this occasion a microphone for the conductor's announcements was located about twelve feet from Mr. Soave and hot; it carried the sound of his left hand while at times the right hand went unheard.

Generalizing: free reed players must be extra aware of the situation in which they perform. For unlike violins, cellos, pianos, etc. with which the public is familiar and forgiving, an audience hearing a free reed instrument is often receiving their first and perhaps only serious exposure to our family of instruments. That makes every accomplished free reed performer not only a conduit of musical art and meaning, but also a messenger for the instrument. Mr. Soave has stated that as a bayan player he has been reviewed in some venues where the critic greatly praised his art, ability and technical prowess, but "hated the instrument." Of course, such a remark is ignorant and bigoted; however, we have a young instrument that needs careful presentation. Early violins and pianos weren't good - composers berated them until talented instrument makers improved the sound. Who was the genius that inserted a post inside a cello and gave it its soul? Free reed instruments under the right circumstances are - even now - beautiful, singing instruments. However, despite my own knowledge, affection and experience, I've heard them in situations that made my skin crawl. In every case it was a matter of improper presentation due to acoustics (well, a few bad instruments, too). I've heard amplification used when it was destructive and unneeded - overdone, underdone. I've heard a lack of amplification (e.g., the concert at hand) when the situation cried out for it. Mr. Soave was playing exceedingly well with an excellent orchestra. I knew as sure as there's wine in the Napa Valley that it should be a rip-your-heart-out experience. It wasn't. Free-reed performers have to know and control the manner of their presentation or suffer the consequences and delay their careers along with the wider acceptance of the instrument - they cannot just step up and play or put themselves at the mercy of inexperienced or indifferent sound engineers. This may mean a free reed artist will have to supply his/her own microphones and amplification and learn how to best display their performance after analyzing the venue.

It's interesting to note that Sinatra early in his career while playing roadside dives in the Jersey boondocks had his mother use money they could ill afford to get him a better microphone for his performances before crowds that some would say wouldn't know timbre from timber. He went on throughout his career to carefully control every aspect of his performance (if not his life). We need that kind of care among free reed players. It's a cold world with a lot of disinterest and negative perceptions to overcome. A question: audiences sit in front of a performer, so why isn't the sound projected forward and mixed better? In the right situation and in the right room when such mixing just happens, my God, the instrument has a fabulous sound. Without correct acoustics an accordion can produce squeaks on the right and groans on the left and silence in between. Also, I believe of all instruments the accordion is the hardest for a player to appreciate how he/she sounds to others. For the accordion always sounds great to the player - go figure: the player is seated between the right and left hands and above the instrument, the ideal spot, but there's only room for one. Indeed, the seating factor may be why free reed players are often mystified. They sounded great to themselves, so why didn't they sound great to everyone else? Well, everyone else wasn't seated between the left and right manuals: mystery solved. What the instrument needs is imaginative engineering on a basic acoustical level, not just amplification and the transforming of free reed instruments into electronic machines or reed-less objects. It's a matter of shaping and mixing the sounds at the point of origin. Help!

Despite my complaints and rambling, Soave was good and the audience enjoyed him. But alas, for those of us who know the dimensions of Peter's talent and have heard him in his full glory under the right circumstances it's painful to think of "what could have been." I wanted to interrupt the polite applause and shout, "You ain't heard nothing, yet!"

The last orchestral selection was the ensemble's best effort of the evening - Nino Rota's Sinfonia sopra una Canzone d'amore. It is a true four-movement symphony by Rota (of Godfather and Fellini fame). The symphony was composed in 1947, first performed in 1952 and the maestro used themes from The Glass Mountain and The Leopard. It was an interesting, powerful work; melodic and surprising and classically grounded. The orchestra nailed this one and had a sharpness and precision that were impressive and moving. The third movement's Andante cantabile was touching and the last movement Allegro impetuoso really cooked. This final selection of the evening left a lasting impression and showed what the orchestra was capable of - even to the point of suggesting they should record the results.

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