Redwood Symphony Maestro Kujawsky
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Current Reviews and Press Coverage

  • September 27, 2016 San Francisco Classical Voice
    "Redwood Symphony Conjures a Steamy, Provocative Mahagonny"
  • July 12, 2016 San Francisco Classical Voice
    "What the Redwood Symphony Wants: Respect"
  • March 30, 2015 San Francisco Classical Voice
    "Redwood Symphony Tackles ‘Masterworks of Form’"
  • February 20, 2015 The Daily Journal
    "Redwood Symphony puts on a 'fantastique' performance"

Recent Reviews

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The San Francisco Classical Voice
Be'eri Moalem, November 23, 2014
Copyright 2014

Artwork by Dave Silon
Artwork by Dave Silon

Redwood Symphony Scales 'Mount Mahler,' Plants Flag for Community Orchestras

To hear an entire Mahler symphony in one sitting is a magical journey that can be mentally draining, and to play one start to finish is an exhilarating, physically exhausting adventure. Scaling “Mount Mahler” is a feat that even the top-tier orchestras only occasionally dare to attempt.

That’s because the symphonies of Mahler are the epitome of the Romantic era’s orchestral literature: maximal size with about a hundred players on stage, maximal length (over an hour), maximal pitch frequency range with featured solos on growling contrabassoon and eardrum-piercing piccolo, maximal dynamic range with barely audible murmurs growing to eardrum-busting bass drum and cymbal crashes, and maximal expressive range from ecstatic to defeated to transcendental.

Redwood Symphony is a community orchestra with lots of chutzpah. In their 30 years, they have played not one, not two, but all nine of Gustav Mahler’s symphonies (some of them more than once).

On Saturday night at Cañada College the symphony played Mahler’s Ninth. Before the concert, I wondered whether an amateur orchestra could pull it off. Notwithstanding a few intonation zingers, I was really impressed. Redwood Symphony captured the spirit of the piece in all its diverse colors and moods. The strings played with unified phrasing and lush sound, especially in the last movement.

Mahler’s marking for the ländler movement is Etwas tappisch und sehr derb or “Somewhat clumsy and very coarse.” Mahler knew that overly refined orchestral playing can sometimes sound too antiseptic — lacking a natural earthiness. There is a lot of charm in rough or improvisatory playing that he might have heard in a countryside tavern of his day. In that sense, Redwood Symphony carried out Mahler’s directions perfectly.

The word amateur comes from the Latin root amare (to love). Amateur orchestras play for the love of music, and it shows. Music Director Eric Kujawsky led the orchestra in a feisty performance, coaxing enthusiasm and elegance from the players.

Redwood Symphony is one of several amateur groups in the area: Palo Alto Philharmonic, South Bay Philharmonic, South Bay Symphony, Silicon Valley Symphony, Awesöme Orchestra Collective, and even the TACO (Terrible Adult Chamber Orchestra) in Los Altos are a few that give casual musicians the opportunity to play music together for eager audiences, and all are an important part of the classical music ecosystem.

But only one of the above orchestras would brave Mahler’s Ninth, and for this ambitious boldness the Redwood Symphony should be congratulated.

The Daily Journal
David Bratman, November 26, 2013
Copyright 2013

'The Planets' a dramatic performance by Redwood Symphony

The Redwood Symphony, in its concert Saturday at Cañada College under Music Director Eric Kujawsky, proved again it’s the little — or not so little — community orchestra that could.

What it could do is give an exciting performance of Gustav Holst’s “The Planets.” This is at least the third time the orchestra has played this massive suite, and the musicians have got the hang of it. It was a dramatic and lucid performance

“The Planets” consists of seven large tone poems for large orchestra, each long enough to be a significant concert offering on its own. Each depicts the character traits associated with an astrological conception of one of the heavenly messengers.

The suite begins with the ruthlessly harsh “Mars, the Bringer of War,” ends with the ethereal “Neptune, the Mystic,” and encompasses five other sets of varied personalities in between.

To be sure, this nonprofessional performance was not flawless. Some of the many instrumental solos came out a little wonky. The double-reed woodwinds tended to be very loud for their surroundings. This was more startling than it was problematic. It made the music feel quite bracing.

There was some difficulty with the electronic organ. After being unusually intrusively loud in Mars, it turned downright reticent in “Uranus, the Magician,” when a huge organ glissando is supposed to make the magician suddenly disappear up his own sleeve. The lack of a large sound here diminished the magic.

But any problems were outnumbered by delights. Beautifully in-tune swellings from the violins were satisfying to hear. The flutes were excellent throughout. The quiet but lurking ostinato that begins “Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age,” for three regular flutes, one bass flute and two harps was outstanding: crisp and sinister, just as it should be.

The most interesting aspect of this performance came with Neptune. This is scored to include wordless singing from an offstage female chorus, but rather than hire a choir to wait around for 40 minutes and then sing where nobody could see them, Maestro Kujawsky improvised. At the break before the movement, half a dozen female string players, who could be spared, quietly slipped offstage so they could form a small chorus, augmented by two synthesizers.

The combination of the natural women’s voices and the artificial synthesizers made for an eerie, unearthly sound. But, as if there’s one thing Neptune is, it’s unearthly, that was all right.

For all its magnitude and complexity, Holst was relatively easy. Mozart, though: Mozart is hard. His music looks so simple on the page, which leaves nothing to hide behind. It requires the utmost musicianship to do well.

Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23 in A major, K. 488, proved difficult for Saturday’s performers. It ran along pertly, and it wasn’t tedious, but it had no Mozartean character. The strings were thin and wobbly in pitch. The winds were loud and inelegant. Soloist Jeffrey Jones had all the notes down — on a score in front of him, unusual for a pianist in Mozart — but his playing was expressionless and lacking in emotion. The hardest thing is to convey a sense of grace and beauty in these simple notes. The absence of that here was particularly regrettable in the slow movement, one of Mozart’s most exquisite Adagios.

The concert began with two short, fast, lively pieces for full orchestra, the “Dance of the Tumblers” from Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera “The Snow Maiden,” and a 1930s jazz composition, Raymond Scott’s “Powerhouse,” which later found its way into the soundtracks of Warner Brothers cartoons. These two were played with great verve in the spirit that the Redwood Symphony would bring to “The Planets.”

San Francisco Classical Voice
Be'eri Moalem, November 23, 2013
Copyright 2013

Redwood Symphony Lifts Off

The Redwood Symphony played a hefty program Saturday night at Cañada College in front of a full house. The concert featured two overtures: Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s festive Dance of the Tumblers and Raymond Scott’s brash Powerhouse. Mozart’s noble Piano Concerto No. 23, in A Major, rounded out the first half. After intermission, the orchestra tackled Gustav Host’s epic masterpiece The Planets in an impressive interpretation.

The program booklet listed 37 violins, 12 violas, 13 cellos, and 7 basses — way more strings than even some top orchestras can afford. The large numbers created a powerful intensity, but after a certain point the story was no longer about the numbers than it was about cohesive ensemble and volume. The fast sections in some pieces were a jumble, and the brass, despite their numbers, still drowned out other sections in climaxes. In this hectic music, nevertheless, was felt a spirit of playing music for the love of it. Listeners witnessed a huge amateur orchestra struggling mightily to synchronize hundreds of instruments’ harmony and intricate rhythmic patterns in real time. It’s so difficult to do, that whenever it happens it counts as a minor miracle of humanity.

These numbers, in my view, are more about people’s desire (both players and listeners) to connect into a collective so tightly knit that they breathe and even tap their fingertips together, yearning to make music rather than just consume it. It is impossible to do anything but commend community orchestras like this that are full of people who make time in their busy lives for practice, rehearsal, and performance. Thus, it was heart-warming to see a wide variety of ages and skill levels on stage, being given a warm reception by family, friends, and community members in the audience, including a good number of well-behaved children.

I have heard community orchestras give cringe-worthy performances, but the Redwood Symphony has almost arrived at the level of a professional orchestra. Music Director Eric Kujawsky evidently feels that he can challenge his players with difficult pieces from the orchestral repertoire.

As his guest artist, Jeffrey Jones channeled neoclassical emotional restraint in the Mozart piano concerto. He played with elegant phrasing and a smooth, delicate tone. This made for a rather stoic reading, however, that at times sounded a bit timid. Mozart is one of the hardest composers to pull off, given the smaller group used, highly exposed orchestration, and the need for careful phrase endings. Everyone needs to stop whacking bows and batons at the end of phrases in Mozart. Fortunately, Kujawsky leads his orchestra with a firm technique, giving clear and cheerful cues, and even choosing tempos on the slow side. He could perhaps attempt to taper phrases more carefully, though.

In Holst’s Planets, the orchestra created distinct sound worlds in each movement. The piece is really more about the mythological characters after which the planets are named than about astronomy. Nonetheless, the titles, combined with the music, really ignite the imagination in a musical tour of the solar system. The Martian march was intense, and the glorious theme from Jupiter was truly exhilarating. Some very effective harp playing was heard throughout. For the last movement, “Neptune the Mystic,” some members of the orchestra went back stage to sing “oohs” in a distant choir. The eerie, amplified voices cast an enigmatic spell as the lights dimmed to black and the orchestra faded to silence — in effect, faded into the void of unknown space.

Around the Bay Area, participants in youth orchestras must number well into the thousands. Yet so often, after graduating from high school or (in better cases) after college, students’ instruments rest forgotten in a closet somewhere, gathering dust as life and careers take over. Music requires constant practice; you use it or you lose it. Luckily for us, community orchestras provide an opportunity for musicians at all levels and of all professions to experience symphonic masterpieces from the inside. The Redwood Symphony, therefore, stands as an important cultural asset for the Peninsula.

The Daily Journal
David Bratman, August 17, 2013
Copyright 2013

Here Comes the Sun: A Beatles Tribute

Classical music met rock ’n’ roll in 1965 when a string quartet came to the Abbey Road studios to join Paul McCartney and his acoustic guitar for a little ditty called “Yesterday.” For the rest of the Beatles’ recording career, London’s best classical session musicians were regular participants in the band’s songs.

On Saturday at the Fox Theatre in Redwood City, that collaboration was celebrated and re-created when the Redwood Symphony, our local community orchestra, joined the White Album Ensemble, a Santa Cruz-based Beatles tribute group specializing in performing live the later songs that the Beatles never performed live themselves, in “Yesterday” and a full two dozen of its successors — Beatles songs all including orchestral instruments.

The collaboration worked, because the White Album Ensemble takes a classical-oriented approach to playing Beatles covers — as opposed to a jazz-oriented approach, in which these things matter less. In their aesthetic, what you sound like is less important than reproducing the rhythm and timing of the original. Aside from being a little rhythmically free in a few of their vocal interpretations, the White Album Ensemble has the rhythm and timing of the Beatles absolutely nailed down and countersunk. After Redwood Symphony conductor Eric Kujawsky would lean over to coordinate opening beats with White Album drummer Trey Sabatelli, seated in front of him, everything would happen exactly when it was supposed to.

You can thank Barry Phillips of the White Album Ensemble for so accurately transcribing the Beatles records into written music that orchestral musicians could play, and the Redwood Symphony and the eight players in the ensemble for their performance. From the multiple keyboardists and guitarists — special note for virtuosity to lead guitarist Stephen Krilanovich — to the singers, the band had flair. Omar Spence’s voice is a particularly good replica of John Lennon’s. Richard Bryant did Paul’s songs — there were a lot of those — and Ken Kraft stood in for both George and Ringo.

Bryant found coordinating timing with the orchestra something of a challenge in “Yesterday” and “Eleanor Rigby,” songs outside of the ensemble’s normal repertoire. His and Kraft’s voices differ more from the originals, but they did well, whooping up the audience in “I Am the Walrus,” for instance, and trying to make a singalong out of “Hello Goodbye.” Needless to say, there was no trouble making a singalong out of the first encore, “Hey Jude.”

And the orchestra behind them sounded pretty neat, too. Amplified, the balance was good. Both listening and watching the musicians, it became clear, for instance, just how much the orchestral strings contribute to the sound even of an uncompromising rock song like “I Am the Walrus.” Which was played, by the way, immediately following “Strawberry Fields,” of which it’s virtually a photocopy, so the program ordering was rather daring too.

I particularly liked the brass, rather wild and rough in songs like “All You Need is Love” and “Got To Get You Into My Life,” but still on target, contributing to the fun of the concert. Stephen Ruppenthal ran out to the end of his tether reproducing the famous trumpet solo in “Penny Lane.” It was awesome when he got through it successfully. The clarinet section in “When I’m Sixty-Four” was a hoot also.

We got bits of “Revolver” and the White Album, a good chunk of “Abbey Road” including the last half of its medley, two songs from “Let It Be” (with the orchestra playing Phil Spector’s overdubs without the gooey saturation on the record), John’s solo “Imagine” and Paul’s big production number “Live and Let Die,” over half of the “Magical Mystery Tour” album and a good chunk of “Sgt. Pepper” ending with the closing three songs running together. The famous chaotic orchestral crescendos that punctuate “A Day in the Life” were a treat to hear live. In fact, this whole concert was a treat to hear live.

The San Jose Mercury News
Paul Freeman, August 6, 2013
Copyright 2013

It doesn't get much better than this

Many baby boomers grew up as Beatle fanatics. Eric Kujawsky and Dale Ockerman, however, were not among them. Perhaps discovering, a bit later in life, the true magic of the Fab Four makes the appreciation deeper and richer.

Maestro Kujawsky's Redwood Symphony and keyboardist Ockerman's The White Album Ensemble, join forces for a sumptuous performance of Beatle classics, "Here Comes The Sun!" at Redwood City's Fox Theatre on Saturday. The special event is a fundraiser for Redwood Symphony's Community and Cultural Outreach programs.

Kujawsky says, "I've never done an orchestra gig with a rock band before. We're all very excited. After seeing The White Album Ensemble perform, I was very enthusiastic, I'm such a huge Beatles fan. Who isn't, especially anyone 50 or older?"

'Dismissive of rock 'n' roll'

The 57-year-old Kujawsky didn't always feel that way, though. He says, "When I was a teen, I was very dismissive of rock 'n' roll. I got a lot of rubbed-off attitudes from my father, who thought only classical music was worth listening to. We all have our ingrained attitudes that we have to outgrow. I was very much in my own insulated, classical world in my teens.

"I joined the wider world of music once I got into college and saw what was out there, progressive rock like Yes. Now I probably enjoy going to rock concerts more than classical concerts. It's something about the energy."

It was Kujawsky's wife, Valerie Sarfaty, who introduced him to The Beatles. "She had actually seen The Beatles live, when she was a teenager. She said, 'Eric, your attitude toward rock is so condescending. Listen to this stuff.' Once I really started listening to The Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel, Bob Dylan and Grateful Dead, I said, 'Oh, my God! Look what I've been missing all these years.'"

Of The Beatles, Kujawsky says, "They were unparalleled songwriters, beautiful melodies. But I guess what impresses me most was how they were able to transcend the teeny-bopper roots of the music they were doing and come up with something that is much more profound, more what we would consider art music, especially starting with their 'Sgt. Pepper' album.

"Once you get into 'Sgt. Pepper' and songs like 'A Day In The Life' or 'She's Leaving Home' or 'Mr. Kite,' you see that they're beginning to branch out into areas of human experience that rockers hadn't done before. They were pioneers in that field and paved the way for other groups, like The Who and Pink Floyd and some of these more grandiose groups, to take the message further."

Redwood Symphony, whose home base is Cañada College in unincorporated Redwood City, is looking forward to packing the large Fox Theatre. With White Album Ensemble, they'll present 25 orchestral Beatles songs, presented chronologically, from "Yesterday" all the way up to John Lennon's "Imagine" and Paul McCartney's epic Bond theme, "Live and Let Die."

For the arrangements, Ockerman enlisted Barry Phillips, a cellist who had been in Ravi Shankar's band. Phillips listened to the Beatles records over and over, meticulously reconstructing the musical textures.

White Album Ensemble has built a loyal following in their home base, Santa Cruz, and would like to extend that northward.

How it all began

The eight-piece Ensemble began 10 years ago as an experiment. A local luthier, Rick McKee, was driving along Highway 1, listening to The Beatles' "The White Album." He thought it would be cool to hear the entire album performed live, in order. He assembled some of Santa Cruz's top musicians.

Ockerman says, "So we started out with this strange double-album, did it live, without any advertising, and somehow sold out two nights, 1,400 people at a theater in Santa Cruz. It just kept snowballing."

The luthier found producing to be too much hassle, so multi-instrumentalist Ockerman took over those chores, wanting to keep this special experience alive. The group is faithful to The Beatles' original vision.

"We never go, 'Let's do a reggae version,'" Ockerman says. "Or heavy metal or ska or punk versions. We don't wear wigs. We just approach it, I suppose, the way a symphony does Mozart. We say, 'This is great music. Let's get it right.'"

Ockerman, 60, who teaches at Santa Cruz's Musicscool, says, "Most of the people in the band started playing guitar because of The Beatles. I'm the exception. I was playing classical trumpet in Cal State Youth Symphony, when I was 9 years old. I went directly from classical into blues, playing Hammond organ on Paul Butterfield type stuff, and really didn't get off on The Beatles until I started hearing things like 'Rain' and 'Paperback Writer' and 'Eleanor Rigby,' telling these great stories, when they started getting a little more psychedelic and more complex. Then it hit me. It was as good as anything, as soulful as the blues I was digging, as funky as Motown. They brought in world music influences long before guys like Peter Gabriel."

At 18, Ockerman played with Quicksilver Messenger Service. Later he joined The Doobie Brothers, playing with the band from 1988 to 1996.

Over the past decade, Ockerman has read all the Beatles books, talked with scholars, studied the records, learned the sitar, harmonica and trumpet parts. "It's really kind of changed my life. The way we feel about it, it's a calling and a privilege to be able to play this music.

"The Beatles worked very hard. They were completely committed to creating high quality art. I can't think of anyone today that's putting out stuff of that scope, that breadth. The Beatles were like the Grand Canyon of music."

By 1966, The Beatles had evolved so far musically that, as a quartet onstage, they couldn't recreate the sophisticated, intricately layered sounds they had fashioned in the studio. Besides, the shrieking mobs could barely hear them anyway. So the band stopped touring.

Ockerman says, "They said, 'We can't do this anymore. Screw it! We've toured the world, done the hard work, slept on the floors, been threatened by Imelda Marcos. Let's just stay home and make great records.' They, of course, had the luxury of being the most popular band in the world, who could actually sell records doing that.

Taking them seriously

"The music had gotten far more interesting with 'Rubber Soul' and 'Revolver.' And people started to take them seriously. Leonard Bernstein made a big deal, sticking up for them, when Van Cliburn and some classical snobs said the music shouldn't be so popular.

"When The Beatles were hiring the London Symphony Orchestra, they were a rock 'n' roll band who were looked down on by these guys, because they didn't read music. Now, almost without exception, the symphony violinists, the trumpeter, the guy bashing the cymbal all go, 'I grew up on this stuff. I love it.'"

The White Album Ensemble is performing many songs The Beatles themselves never played live. The ensemble has played with the Monterey Symphony and is eager to join forces with Redwood Symphony.

Ockerman says, "We were very impressed when we saw them. We thought, 'They include contemporary composers. That's unusual. These guys are hip. They're taking chances.' And they sounded great. So we thought this would be ideal."

Kujawsky says, "I hope that the audience will leave with a new appreciation for how great and trailblazing The Beatles were."

Ockerman agrees. "I hope they realize that it's still relevant. We've still got war. We still need music. And it doesn't get much better than The Beatles. It's a big, complicated, messy world in need of beauty and truth. Their message of love and peace is still important."

The Daily Journal
David Bratman, June 7, 2013
Copyright 2013

Sweeney Todd — a demonic romp

Imagine a production of Stephen Sondheim’s comic-horror musical “Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” starring John Goodman and Carol Burnett. And they could both sing, really well. That will give you a rough idea of what the Redwood Symphony put on last Saturday at Cañada College.

Walter Mayes played Sweeney. He’s a huge, tall man who towered over the rest of the cast. In costume and makeup, he looked grim.

But his Sweeney emphasized the good-natured side of his personality, even as he murdered. It lost some of the iron from his sulfurous curses, but it did several admirable things. It made him believable in cracking jokes and puns in “A Little Priest” and in affectionately enduring Mrs. Lovett’s prattle. It emphasized the slyness of his plans as he hid his motives. It rendered his sudden outbursts of anger terrifying. And the cool suavity he brought to the act of slitting a series of customers’ throats while singing lyrically was genuinely funny. His vocal smoothness — he didn’t talk or spit his way through his numbers — emphasized the John Goodman-like heartiness of his character.

Cami Thompson, under a shock of red hair, played Mrs. Lovett. She was, if anything, even finer than Mayes. She brought a bawdy fishwife goofiness to the role that fits the character better than the coquettishness of Angela Lansbury, the original actress. Her comedy, and her cockney accent, are what reminded me of Carol Burnett.

From Thompson’s first appearance, serving “The Worst Pies in London” as she kneaded a lump of dough to the irregular rhythm of the song’s accompaniment, she was splendidly funny, in fine voice, and on top of her lines. Her big character song, “By the Sea,” expressed herself and fit into the flow of the drama instead of standing as a digression.

As the wretched Johanna, Maya Kherani was the most operatic singer in the cast. She gave lyric grace to Sondheim’s angular melodies, and had finely intertwining duets with Justin Marsh as Johanna’s suitor, Anthony. The strong-voiced Marsh made an Anthony with strength of character and not just a mooning lover.

Bobby Bryce as the quirky servant boy, Toby, gave comic flair to his acting, but vocally copied Ken Jennings in the original cast recording too closely. Bill Welch as Signor Pirelli displayed some flair, and Mia Fryvecind Gimenez was consistently vivid as the beggar woman who’s always lurking around.

Michael Morris as Judge Turpin and Paul Zawilski as Beadle Bamford were strong singers — Zawilski has a notable falsetto range — but they didn’t radiate evil as their characters require. This production included an often-cut song for Turpin to alternately express his lust for Johanna and flagellate himself for it. This did not come off well; perhaps that’s why it’s often cut.

The chorus, whose members also take other small roles, gave excellent work in the complex part-singing, and eerily transformed themselves onstage from narrators into the gibbering inmates of an insane asylum for the scene set there.

Members of the Redwood Symphony sat as far back as they could fit in a corner on stage, leaving about half of it free for sets and for empty spaces representing more transitory scenes. From the moment Sweeney made his entrance, climbing out of his own grave (a trap door in the stage), it was evident that Phil Lowery’s direction would be spirited and dynamic. Both the audience and the musicians were occasionally included in the drama. Scenes shifted crisply through the actors’ movements rather than through set changes. Eric Kujawsky’s firm musical direction matched the spirit of the stage direction.

The only staging problems came in the second act, when Sweeney’s barber chair dumps his victims to the side of the stage. From audience left I could see the bodies get up and walk away. Placing the bakehouse oven in the wings created difficulty in the horrifying final scene, which the actors got around as best they could.

The sound balance with the orchestra on stage was more seriously problematic. The instruments were simply too dominating. Even amplified, the singers’ words were drowned out half the time. It depended entirely on how loud the accompaniment was at the moment.

San Francisco Classical Voice
—Janos Gereben, June 2, 2013
Copyright 2013

The Splendor of a Symphonic Sweeney Todd

The lush orchestral sound of Stephen Sondheim's operatic-symphonic musicals is usually heard half-buried from the pit or, at most school and community performances, from a band. (The weekend's other local Sondheim, Ray of Light's Into the Woods, has a super-talented small band, but eight players an orchestra do not make.)

In a welcome alternative, Eric Kujawsky's Redwood Symphony did full justice to the rich, Jonathan Tunick-orchestrated Sondheim score of Sweeney Todd over the weekend in Cañada College's sprawling Main Theater, defying all odds (about which more below). Strings, woodwinds, brass, and the malevolent organ (played by Delphean Quan) were all splendid; Kujawsky elicited consistent balance from the 50-piece ensemble, bringing out gorgeous layers of sound.

Concertmaster Heather Katz, principals Doug Tomm (viola), Amy Brooks (cello), Brian Link (bass), Dan Swinehart (trumpet), and Kristen Arrendt (trombone) shone in leading their sections.

The audience so much appreciated the orchestra's work that a collective shudder was felt through the theater when Todd (Walter Mayes) and Mrs. Lovett (Cami Thompson) contemplated who should be on the menu in the riotous duet "Have A Little Priest," and they closely inspected violist Peter Haas and flutist/piccolo player Patricia Harrell during added lyrics about musicians-for-lunch, following:

"... We have some shepherd's pie peppered
With actual shepherd
On top.
Here's a politician — so oily
It's served with a doily ..."
"Is that squire
On the fire?
Mercy no, sir,
Look closer,
You'll notice it's grocer.
Looks thicker.
More like vicar.
No, it has to be grocer — it's green."

Happy to report that Haas and Harrell kept playing and escaped without a single bite.

About the difficulties: With only 516 seats, the unusually wide theater feels much larger, and it has challenging acoustics.

With the full orchestra seated on one side of the 45-foot-wide stage, and all principal singers using body mikes, their volume cranked way up, there were problems, especially when two singers stood close to each other and their mikes picked up two voices, producing a a double amplification.

Even with all the electronics, which normally equalizes voices, there were big differences in the performances. Mayes was an overwhelming Todd, a big man with a big voice, and fine diction — an indispensable requirement for Sondheim. Thompson's flaming redhead Mrs. Lovett, took in stride being dwarfed in size and voice by Mayes, and she was having (and providing) a great time.

Justin Marsh, as Anthony — the romantic lead in a thoroughly unromantic musical — performed miraculously, every note in place, every word clear, overcoming the pitfalls of electronics. His love interest, Johanna, sung by the young and talented Maya Kherani, struggled with the difficult tessitura, and registered near zero on the diction meter; for this fan of the singer, her performance was a disappointment, but I hope for a bright future in other, more suitable roles.

Phil Lowery's stage direction moved principals smoothly, but got bogged down a few times in crowd scenes. Michael Morris' Judge Turpin, Bobby Bryce's Tobias, and Bill Welch's Pirelli were excellent. Mia Fryvecind Gimenez's Beggar Woman was especially memorably, in singing and acting.

At the end, to this Sondheim fan — no, maniac — the most important element of the show was Kujawsky's musical direction and the storming-enchanting Redwood Symphony. May they do more Sondheim.

Speaking of the future, check out the orchestra's next season: Enesco, Riegger (!), Strauss, Scott, Holst, Ligeti, Adams, Gottschalk, Schnittke, Shostakovich ... an amazing lineup, its adventurousness putting to shame some "big-city" orchestras.

San Mateo Daily Journal
—David Bratman, April 19, 2013
Copyright 2013

Redwood Symphony mesmerizing and awe-inspiring.

Conductor Eric Kujawsky likes big, heavy, complicated modern symphonies. That’s why the Redwood Symphony, of which he is music director, performs composers like Mahler and John Corigliano. Last Saturday at Cañada College, it was the turn of Christopher Theofanidis, a contemporary American composer whose Symphony No. 1 Kujawsky heard on CD and decided to program.

This symphony is a large, sometimes brutal work with weird and fascinating combinations of sounds. The first movement features a recurrent theme that seems Native American in style. It’s first played by an unearthly combination of massed oboes and clarinets, and later reappears all over the orchestra. But the most captivating part of the movement, and the work, is an interlude of slowly cohering fragments for brass and percussion.

The second movement begins with a string theme that Benjamin Britten might have written, and then transmutes into something like fantasy adventure movie music — 1960s Japanese Godzilla flicks, perhaps. Then comes a quick rough scherzo.

The finale begins, and ends, with a timpani solo and, in between, features much gruff rumbling and growling for the lowest-pitched instruments in the orchestra, as if it had been composed by a bear.

At times, huge walls of dissonance roll out toward the audience. Even when it’s quiet, the music is never ingratiating, though the weird sounds are mesmerizing. Kujawsky told the audience that he expected we would like this work. I don’t think it’s capable of being liked, exactly. You have to be friendly and approachable for that. But it sure is awe-inspiring.

All four movements end quizzically, without big bangs. So Kujawsky capped the symphony with an encore of the angular “Dance of the Knights” from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet. This famously harsh dance fit perfectly with the mood, though next to the Theofanides it felt almost meek.

That comparison will give you an idea of what the symphony sounded like. On the noisy scale in which Aaron Jay Kernis is a 10, this gets an eight. Only the denizens of rock arenas would remain unimpressed.

Being ingratiating at this concert was the job of David Garner, a professor at the San Francisco Conservatory who recently arranged Six Persian Songs — that’s the piece’s title — for soprano and orchestra. The soprano was Iranian expatriate Raeeka Shehabi-Yaghmai, Garner’s former student, who brought the songs to his attention.

A professional opera singer used to performing in Italian, Shehabi-Yaghmai looked delighted to be bringing us songs familiar to her, sung in her own native tongue, for a change (English supertitles were provided).

The four traditional and two modern melodies were well served by Garner’s orchestration. He provided graceful counter-melodies in a light scoring that did not interfere with the clarity or audibility of the voice, except deliberately in the concluding bouncy paean to the attractions of Kurdistan.

Much of the backing was for harp or light winds, giving a bit of a French sound to the music. The cultural mixture of Persian and traditional Western is just what Shehabi-Yaghmai was looking for when she enlisted Garner. Their goal, as they explained in a pre-concert talk, was to mix the two styles thoroughly as artistic rapprochement between Iran and the Western world.

The six songs varied in mood; dancing, romantic and sad. Most successful was “My Homeland,” an exile’s lament by Davood Sarkhosh. Garner’s scoring was at its best here. The orchestra builds up strongly, without either covering the soprano or feeling like it’s only popping up when she stops to take a breath. Shehabi-Yaghmai sang with passion.

The French sound made a further appearance in the concert in Claude Debussy’s Petite Suite. This is an early work of Debussy’s, tuneful and charming. The Redwood Symphony performance was fine in the winds. The strings betrayed more of the orchestra’s amateur status. Yet they gave the music the gentle lilt that makes it work.

Redwood Symphony’s next show is a concert performance of Stephen Sondheim’s classic grisly operatic musical, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, June 1 and 2 at Cañada College 

San Francisco Classical Voice
—Janos Gereben, August 7, 2012
Copyright 2012

Mega-Concert of the Year. Or Years.

Oscar Wilde's observation that "Nothing succeeds like excess" is true enough, as far as it goes. The unstated part is that success depends on execution; the more excessive the work, the greater the requirement for keeping up with the earth-heaven-hell-shaking forte-forte-fortissimi.

Sunday's Berlioz Requiem and more in Davies Symphony Hall — consisting of some of the "biggest" music in all literature — exceeded all expectations. Anticipation was tempered by a perusal of the components: the expanded Redwood Symphony (over 100 players), 80 singers from New York, and 140 from the San Francisco Lyric Chorus and 34 other choral groups in the Bay Area. All volunteers, coming together for this one-time event, rehearsed in tutti only for a couple of days. Hmmm ... how did it go?

The concert started with the Fanfare from Strauss' Also Sprach Zarathustra, Eric Kujawaski making the rafters shake with the 2001: A Space Odyssey "Sunrise," and the orchestra playing as one. Mendelssohn's Hebrides Overture (conducted by Eric Townell) was followed by the chorus' first, impressive entrance with the Shepherds' Farewell from Berlioz' L'Enfance du Christ (Robert Gurney).

Then came the glorious Finale of Boito's Mefistofele (conducted by event organizer and former San Francisco choral maven Andrew Horn), which you may experience in a similarly splendid performance here in a better-financed venue (no solo singers, sets, or costumes on Sunday, but the effect was the same).

One quibble: The Devil's derisive whistle at the angels is disruptive enough (that's the purpose), but it can and should be musical, not as crude and "atonal" as it was at this concert.

The Berlioz Requiem took up the second half of the concert, the complex masterpiece conducted by Kujawsky in a consistent, unaffected, unhurried, and from-the-heart performance. The huge chorus performed well throughout the concert, especially in the Requiem, sopranos leading the way with a clear, beautiful sound. Unlike the somewhat slurred text in the Boito and the other Berlioz, diction in the Requiem was excellent.

A startling discovery, at least for me, was the orchestra. In context, it is one of the finest community orchestras around. In general, terrific performances all the way through, with first violins and woodwinds leading the way, no section slacking off, and the quickly recruited extra brass doing well.

When I first read the Redwood Symphony repertory, I was surprised and a bit wary (two Mahler cycles, lots of difficult, big, and contemporary works over the years), but after the Davies Hall concert, I'll be heading south to the peninsula to hear the orchestra for myself. If the expanded Redwood Symphony could do this well with Boito and Berlioz, the regular core group must be heard to be believed.

And look at the 2012-2013 season: Corigliano, Beethoven, Theofanidis, Revueltas, Bernstein, Brahms, Rodriguez, Gruber, Daugherty, Debussy, and a concert version of Sweeney Todd ... Goodness gracious me! (Are you reading this, big, commercial orchestra to the north?)

A comment from Kujawsky about the Sunday concert, something that may well be suspect of self-aggrandizement otherwise, is simply the truth in this case: "It was the kind of concert one dreams about having as a peak musical experience, which most musicians never experience. Only with volunteers!"

To give credit at least to the first-chair players: Heather Katz, concertmaster; Sarah Moskovitz, second violins; Doug Tomm, viola; Ellis Verosub, cello; Brian Link, bass; Patti Harrell, flute/piccolo; Joan Hebert, clarinet; Doug McCracken, bassoon; Jim Millar, horn; Larry Heck, trumpet; Erik Dabel, trombone; Dave Silon, tuba; and no principal in the program, but 11 percussionists.