By Megan Westberg
Slate-blue walls bounded in squares and rectangles by rich wood framing dominate the room, but a few curves, delineating box seats, balance the angles and draw the eye toward the stage. It is painted black, with white paneling hanging in stark contrast. With only 785 seats, the Hofmann Theatre at Walnut Creek’s Lesher Center for the Arts has a snug atmosphere, all the better for making a symphonic piece feel like chamber music. For making its audience feel a part of the experience. For making a classical-music performance a community event.
Saturday, September 10, 2022
California Symphony, Donato Cabrera, cond.
Inbal Segev, cello
And this very much feels like a community event. It’s opening night for the California Symphony, but the room isn’t flooded with sequins and stilettos. The only white-tie-and-tails to be found are onstage. The audience has taken the California Symphony at its word, which encourages concertgoers to come as they are—dress up, dress casual: they’re happy either way. “You do you,” they suggest, “and we’re just glad you’re joining us.” This is part of the symphony’s general ethos, which is to make concertgoing an approachable experience by offering free pre-concert talks, encouraging audiences to clap when they hear something they like (even, gasp, between movements), keeping the dress code casual, and allowing concertgoers to bring their drinks to their seats.
This evening, music director Donato Cabrera will be leading the symphony through Kodály’s Dances of Galánta, Anna Clyne’s DANCE for cello and orchestra (with star cellist Inbal Segev as soloist), Skoryk’s Melody for Orchestra, and Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 2. It’s a program that holds together well, mixing contemporary music with repertoire staples in a way that feels cohesive, logical, and satisfying.
The Kodály is up first and proves an invigorating way to start the night, especially as a showcase for Cabrera to demonstrate his conducting style. As the music proceeds through swirling strings to themes—developed from folk music—that run from playful to dramatic to rollicking to cinematic, Cabrera displays his charisma in his emotive gestures, even dancing a bit when he wants the music to dance.
But after Segev strides onstage in a white jacket and flowing blue gown, her lipstick a singular pop of coral before a scrim of matching black N95s, Cabrera’s style takes on a quieter air, his exuberance communicated instead in his sensitive support of the soloist and thoughtful connection with the orchestra. Anna Clyne’s lyrical piece DANCE, given its world premiere by Segev in 2019, is inspired by a poem by 13th-century poet Rumi, with each movement representing the character of its corresponding line.
Dance, when you’re broken open.
Dance, if you’ve torn the bandage off.
Dance in the middle of the fighting.
Dance in your blood.
Dance, when you’re perfectly free.
This is not a concerto for the faint of heart—Segev’s athleticism is on display as well as her artistry as she navigates the cello’s tightrope upper registers down to its throaty, resonant depths. She engages with the music with care—smiling as she digs into her cello in the second movement with obvious relish, spinning a rich, ringing tone in the melancholy third, the symphony a stage whisper behind her. After a dramatic turn in the fourth movement, Segev and, indeed, Clyne seem to have arrived at a place of freedom in the fifth, with unsettled passages, snaps from the orchestra, and abrupt stylistic shifts resolving into a moving theme that is both haunting and powerful. Segev’s pleasure throughout DANCE is in her face, in her bowing, in the way her fingers dance across the fingerboard. Her brief glances exchanged with Cabrera seem to serve less as check-ins than as moments of mutual musical appreciation. “Isn’t this great?” they seem to say.
The audience clearly thinks it is great and leaps to its collective feet at the piece’s close.
Segev returns to the stage to give an encore, and she approaches her Bach Sarabande with a kind of playful intimacy. This is an old friend. She and her cello seem to dissolve gracefully into the music, conjuring the spirit of a composer who also inspired Anna Clyne.
After intermission, the California Symphony players take their seats for Ukrainian composer Myroslav Skoryk’s Melody for Symphony Orchestra. Originally written for a film, this tender, achingly lovely piece is made especially poignant since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Cabrera’s approach was a study in restraint, lending crescendos power, heightening the drama of the music.
Next up: Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 2, Op. 17, familiarly known now as the “Ukrainian” because of its use of that country’s folk songs in some of its themes. It’s in this work that the size of the hall translates into the immediacy of the music: the ensemble is free to whisper and shout, to tell a musical story in both subtle and striking terms, always to be heard and seen and appreciated from every seat. Audiences are close enough to recognize acting concertmaster Sam Weiser’s earnest engagement with the music and his maestro. And when the last movement gets really cooking, the sound rushes through the space like a wild spring wind. “Who wouldn’t want to rock out to the last movement of the Tchaikovsky?!” Weiser wonders in the program. Judging by the gale of applause at the close of the concert, it would seem that everyone present felt the same way.