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[whitespace] Jennifer Frautschi Impeccable Control: Violin soloist Jennifer Frautschi had the audience and her fellow musicians singing her praises.


Confidence Builder

The Santa Cruz Symphony aimed high and scored in season finale

By Scott MacClelland

WHAT USUALLY THROWS the Santa Cruz Symphony off its form is not a breakdown of technique. Rather it stems from a loss of confidence, which reflects in the playing as reticence, a weakening of commitment. But not this time. In its season finale at Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium last Saturday, the orchestra and conductor Larry Granger gave ticket buyers their money's worth. And Jennifer Frautschi, soloist in Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto in D, easily doubled that value.

Orchestral reticence is certainly not limited to the Santa Cruz musicians. The best orchestras in the world have their own off-days. One of the things that endears me to the Santa Cruzans, however, is their capacity to aim high and achieve those aims most of the time, on a lean and mean budget. (The Monterey Symphony, with two and half times the Santa Cruz budget, is still struggling to control and restore its artistic product to standards that predate its 1998-99 music-director search season.)

In Santa Cruz, Granger is not only an exceptional team leader but is also a team player. With subscription renewals on his mind, he knows that the last concert of the season is not the best place to take extraordinary risks. Hence the selection of Shostakovich's Festive Overture and Dvorák's Symphony no. 8, works that the orchestra knows well and that carry relatively few pitfalls. Ipso facto, no reticence.

Across the character-spectrum of Shostakovich's music, the word "heroic" applies unequivocally only to the Symphony no. 5 and the Festive Overture. If the piece itself is more obvious than subtle, then the only way to play it is to go for broke. But like all of Shostakovich, it demands discipline, which it got, making a powerful impression. By positioning 10 brass players at the top of the balcony, Granger turned the last pages of an exciting performance into a thrilling one.

How good was Jennifer Frautschi in the concerto? She got cheers, extended applause and a partial standing ovation after the first movement. And she earned it. It's a monster of a piece and she confronted all its daunting challenges head-on, with a passionate urgency driving impeccable technical control. So riveting was the movement that the remaining canzonetta and final allegro felt a bit anticlimactic, but certainly not for want of power and expression. (During the intermission musicians from the orchestra were heard raving about Frautschi even more than members of the audience.)

Dvorák's Symphony in G pointed up the frustrating acoustics at Civic. Incrementally, effective improvements have been made, but there remains room for continued experimentation. When the strings play by themselves, they produce the desired weight of sonority, but when the brass are added, minor bits from that quarter overwhelm the main events carried in one moment or another by the strings.

It seems that putting greater distance between the wind complement and the reflecting back wall might give Granger more control of balances. Curiously, the horns, with direct access to the wall, don't seem to deliver quite enough (especially in the finale of the Dvorák, where they must bellow like bull elephants).

That matter aside, the orchestra came up with the goods. The opening theme on the cellos was rich and full-bodied, as it would be again when reprised in the finale. Kristina Anderson made a handsome solo in the second movement. The stuttering syncopations in the B section of the third movement worked their familiar magic on the enchanting folk theme first heard on the solo oboe. (Too bad the violins didn't use portamento when the theme fell to them, a convention that went out of style years ago.)

Video cameras were stationed around the room to tape the concert for later broadcast on the cable company's community access channels, another first for the symphony and for Santa Cruz.

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From the May 9-16, 2001 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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