Redwood Symphony Maestro Kujawsky
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San Mateo Daily Journal
--Keith Kreitman, April 15, 2008
Copyright 2008 San Mateo Daily Journal

Redwood Symphony's Kujawsky Tames Mahler

I once wrote that Dr. Eric Kujawsky and the Redwood Symphony doing Mahler is not a concert. It's an event. I have found no reason to modify that musical judgment.

That's because wrestling Gustav the Great to the mat escapes all but a few conductors and Kujawsky has been the local champion in my time. He has already staged all 11 symphonies and is in the process of recycling.

And Symphony No. 3 may be the ultimate Mahler match for any conductor.

Clocking in at an hour and 40 minutes at a Sunday afternoon concert in the auditorium at Cañada College, almost four times the conventional length of most symphonies, with six instead of four movements, this becomes a test of endurance for both the audience and orchestra. And if this monumental work hadn't been so darn captivating, I would have thrown in the towel and clocked myself out early.

If you're expecting this 100-year-old symphony to be a next step from Brahms, Mahler unhinges your musical mind a bit and, then, beats you into submission. First, he sucks you in with his irresistible power in the first movement and then seduces you with charm in the second. And by that time, you are rendered helpless in your seat, permitting the seemingly directionless flow and limitless variety of melodic lines and orchestrations to wash all over you, not knowing where he is taking you or when you will be getting there and, frankly, not really caring anymore. In fact, by the final chords, you are beginning to hope there is another movement waiting and the trip isn't over yet.

Although sticking pretty much to the traditional harmonic and melodic developments in Western music, Mahler did not let convention stand in the way of any special effects he desired in his orchestrations. He doubles up on French Horns, has brass players perform offstage in the wings, and adds nontraditional instruments for special effects.

He gives big-time play in the first movement to an unexpected instrument for solos, the trombone and Garo Gaglino snatches the opportunity for a once-in-a-lifetime basking in the spotlight. And for good measure, he gives trumpeter Larry Heck a workout also.

In fact, Mahler calls for mucho brass featured in this symphony and Kujawsky hit the jackpot on that with a fabulous brass section. Gets to where you begin to feel sympathy for the usually predominant strings.

Although, he is a master of dynamic variations, Mahler's soft music is by no means delicate. The French and English would go mad trying to contain themselves in performance. From his music, you would hardly ever identify him as Jewish. He was as Germanic in style as the anti-Semitic Richard Wagner, which myth has it was busting veins in his hatred of the man.

For many years, Mahler was looked upon as too thick and complex for general concert audiences and most professional orchestras wouldn't undertake his symphonies. But after the championing by Leonard Bernstein in the 1960s, the programming of Mahler works entered the mainstream and the conventional "Three Bs" greats, Bach, Beethoven and Brahms has been amended by many to "The Three Bs and an M."

There is no question that the Redwood Symphony, founded by the music director and conductor Dr. Eric Kujawsky, is unique among the numerous full-sized symphony orchestras in at least the Bay Area. He has gathered a remarkable bunch of volunteer individualists eager for the greatest challenges in the symphonic repertoire. It doesn't cater to those who prefer "pop concert" music. It programs important music not ordinarily scheduled by those who do.

Even in dress, there is none of the formal tuxedos and gowns to draw the attention away from the musical effects. Just plain old black pants, shirts and skirts will do, thank you, and as likely as not the shirtsleeves will be rolled up, ready for the work.

And, work them Kujawsky does. He is arguably the most highly trained director of voluntary orchestras in the Bay Area with a doctorate from Stanford University and his pre-concert lectures testifying to his broad studies in musicology.

Best of all there is no display of ego evident in his conducting style. No Leopold Stokowski sweeps of beautiful hands. Every gesture is direct, pointed and occasionally even ugly if that is what is needed to draw the composer's intent from his 95 musical charges.

In this case, there were more than 95, because the Peninsula Women's Chorus and the Ragazzi Boys Chorus joined them in the adjoining aisles, while beautifully voiced soprano Theresa Cardinale joined them onstage in several of inner movements. Another reminder of the remarkable gathering of talent that can be called upon in the Bay Area.

I must confess, the short opening number, "Fanfare for Louisville" by Witold Lutoslawski, conducted by Kristin Link, was an absolute mystery to me. It sounded like the orchestra was tuning up and doing a very bad job of it at that.

The Redwood Symphony still sounds best in its mother venue at Cañada College, from which is was so inexplicably exiled by a previous college administration. But a musical debt of gratitude is owed to the new college president, the enlightened Tom Mohr, for bringing it back home.

After all, how many community colleges in the United States are able to boast of being able to stage a symphony orchestra the quality of the Redwood Symphony?

San Francisco Classical Voice
--David Bratman, April 6, 2008
Copyright 2008 David Bratman

The Many Moods of Mahler

Gustav Mahler's Third Symphony is his longest work, and from Mahler, who was never brief, that's really saying something. It's six movements long and takes about an hour and three-quarters to perform. The Third requires a large orchestra, including eight French horns (who blast out the opening theme in unaccompanied unison) and four each of most of the other winds and brass.

Then there are two choruses (who only get to sing for four minutes in the middle of the symphony), plus a solo singer (who gets slightly more time than the choruses). This is the work that the Redwood Symphony, a nonprofessional volunteer orchestra, undertook to perform Sunday at the Cañada College Theatre in Redwood City, under its music director, Eric Kujawsky.

In fact, over its 23 years, the Redwood Symphony has performed all the Mahler symphonies before, and that may be one reason the hall was packed: The audience knew the orchestra could handle it and that listeners would get good value for their inexpensive ticket price. Another reason may be that, despite its length, the Mahler Third is not grandiose or forbidding. Along with his Fourth it's one of the most genial and welcoming of his symphonies. Yet its size keeps it from being often performed.

The Third is oddly structured. It begins with a massive (over 30 minutes) fast movement in the form of a march, continues with four shorter movements of varied character, and concludes with an equally massive slow movement, to which Mahler tacked on a grand but short coda when he decided to excise the original finale and save it for his Fourth.

Kujawsky and his orchestra emphasized the strong sides of Mahler's varying moods. The first movement in this performance was well-performed as the powerful march that is one side of its character. It was catchy and rhythmically driven, rather than alternately brusque and stymied as in some performances. The blind wandering interludes and long pauses were not lingered on, and the spooky parts for fluttering winds were less than spooky.

Even the pianissimo bassoon tags sounded loud, and the tutti climaxes for full orchestra fairly blasted their way out of the hall. Sections of complex counterpoint gave a superbly furious impression of controlled chaos.
This made an interesting echo to the extremely brief (lasting, indeed, fewer seconds than Mahler's minutes) Fanfare for Louisville by Witold Lutoslawski that opened the program, a work that is basically an aleatoric squawk for brass supported by winds. The Fanfare was led by assistant conductor Kristin Turner Link.

Brass in Fine Fettle

Mahler's first movement gives a fairer chance for brass players to show their quality. The Redwood Symphony's brass, often its weakest section, put on a special effort here. The horns were full and fat, with few cracked notes and mostly on pitch, and the heavy brass also shone, especially in principal trombone Garo Gagliano's long solos. He stood up to deliver these, and they carried over any attempt by Mahler's orchestration to drown him out.

Ragazzi Boys Chorus

The first movement, then, was one of the highlights of the concert. The other highlight was the Carol of the Bells–like choral fifth movement. There was no room for even one chorus, let alone two, on the crowded stage, so the Peninsula Women's Chorus came down the far aisle (against the wall) on the audience left during a break between movements, and the Ragazzi Boys Chorus similarly on the right.

Their conductors, Amy Hunn and Kent Jue, respectively, set up their music stands in the two middle aisles facing their singers, but kept one eye for cues on Kujawsky (who remained facing the orchestra). It was a complex arrangement, but it all came out well. Nothing broke down, and the voices were strong and cheerful. The intended antiphonal effect might have worked better for those seated closer to the center than I was.

The other singer in this movement, and in the hushed stroke-of-midnight song forming the previous movement, was mezzo-soprano Theresa Cardinale, who stood in the customary spot on stage next to the conductor. She too had a strong voice and, after taking a moment to settle down in the rhythm of her song, matched up well with the orchestra, and also in the next movement with the choruses, which chide her grief.

The rest of the symphony was notable mostly for its solos. The particularly outstanding one came from offstage in the third movement. Mahler scores this long, lyrical melody for the posthorn, but that rare instrument is not often used. Here Larry Heck gave a fine imitation of the posthorn's low and mellow sound on an ordinary C trumpet over hushed strings. Throughout the symphony there were notable wind solos, as well -- oboist Peter Stahl can be singled out here -- and the many violin solos were given in good rhythmic form by concertmaster Heather Katz.

The general overall impression varied. However well the players performed in the first movement, the gentle lilt of the second movement eluded them. The intonation was poor here, and the orchestra sounded fully like the nonprofessional ensemble that it is. The third movement improved, both in the trumpet solo and in the faster parts elsewhere in the movement. The two vocal movements were carried by their excellent singers.

The final slow movement was, again, somewhat problematic. By this time even the brass were tiring out and dropping notes, but the music still had flow, and the Redwood Symphony showed its true quality by summoning up last reserves of energy and giving magnificent grandeur to the coda. It was a long journey, and they all made it to the end together.

San Mateo Daily Journal --Keith Kreitman
San Mateo Daily Journal, October 2, 2007
Copyright 2007 San Mateo Daily Journal

Cañada renaissance benefits symphony

This concert could be called “The Return of the Natives,” as the Redwood Symphony comes back to its cradle venue after being exiled for years by an inhospitable Cañada College administration.

However, with the ascent of Tom Mohr to the presidency, you have a man, famed for his humanity as the superintendent of the San Mateo Union High School District who, realizing an institution of learning needs to provide food for the soul as well as for the brain, has began a Renaissance of the Arts at Cañada Community College.

If you believe that where a symphony orchestra plays does not matter, then, I invite you to hear how much better and more balanced the orchestra sounds now that it is back in its old stamping grounds, the main theater on the campus in Redwood City.

This orchestra is the baby of its music director, Dr. Eric Kujawsky, who founded it in 1985 and has nursed its growth until it is arguably the most technically proficient of the non-professional orchestra in the Bay Area, and I believe it matches some of these.

And I don't even believe it is arguable that Kujawsky isn't one of the best conductors, with an admirable suppression of ego- driven artistic flourish and an economical beat and cueing that never unnecessarily crosses the parameters of need.

And the orchestra eschews that same glamorous affectation. No uncomfortable black ties, dress suits and formals for them. Good old black skirts and pants and black shirts and blouses will do to keep the audience riveted on to the most important thing, the great music itself.

And with Kujawsky, if you arrive one hour before the concert, you get a two-for-one, when he puts on his musicologist hat and lucidly explains to all what they are about to hear and even more.

What about this concert on Sept. 30?

One word: Powerful!

The featured work on the program was my favorite “Symphony No. 1 in C Minor,” by Johannes Brahms and Kujawsky pulled out all the stops till the smashing ending.

Rivaling that for power was cello soloist Dahna Rudin in the “Cello Concerto No. 1 in E-flat Major” by Dmitri Shostakovich. There is no question of who is the boss, soloist or cello, when Rudin puts bow to the strings.

She is in complete control, with lyrical mastery and full rich tone, she reels off demanding passages effortlessly and holds to her own artistic pace in the extended cadenzas. Clearly a first rate talent with a great reading of a complex work.

And the interior voices of the orchestra had an opportunity to show how really good they are in the Shostakovich because his sparse scoring in some passages leaves openings yards wide, where no wind or brass soloist can remain hidden among the many strings players.

Principal clarinetist on this work was Joan Hebert and she negotiated some of the most difficult soloist jumps I have ever heard for clarinet in any composition. She had me on the edge of my seat worrying whether she could get through all of it without a squeak or spraining her fingers. No problem! No sprains. No squeaks. No sweat.

The Shostakovich work had no brass except for one French Horn and Jim Millar was simply outstanding in numerous solo passages.

This is a program in which the French Horn section was called upon more than any in memory. And this section, often the nemesis of any symphony orchestra, is simply to kill for. To hear a concert in which there is not a single break in any horn call is a wonder in itself.

And Greg White's extensive solo work in the Brahms was equally outstanding. And we mustn't forget the clear, clean work of the other two, Michael Henry and Mark Nakamura. Wow!

The opening number, directed by Assistant Conductor Kristin Link, was “Sizzle,” by Margaret Brouwer. And that title quite suits this modern work composed in the year 2000. It sizzles!

With some brass playing from the rear of the auditorium, there are all kinds of disjointed counterpoint, rhythms and probably most of the other effects ever musically conceived by composers to leave with the audience the impression of the 21st century's race to nowhere.And, it worked! When it was over, I, for one, was “nowhere.”

Welcome home, wandering minstrels, thee!

The New Yorker
--Alex Ross, June 25, 2007
Copyright 2007 The New Yorker

On the Road
Three orchestras, three cities, two days

Excerpt:

On the Internet, the landscape of American orchestral life is visible as never before.... Wandering around this virtual map, you can see signs that America's orchestras are vacillating between vague optimism and raw panic.... Nearly as often, you stumble on happy surprises. Who would have guessed that the Redwood Symphony, a volunteer orchestra in the Silicon Valley area, has played all of Mahler's symphonies?

San Francisco Classical Voice New Yorker
--David Bratman, June 25, 2007
Copyright 2007 David Bratman

Intrepid Community Orchestra

Not many orchestras are as much the creation of their music directors as is the Redwood Symphony. Eric Kujawsky founded this community orchestra in 1985, shapes the ensemble and its repertoire, conducts most of the performances, and gives his own preconcert lectures. He's an enthusiast for 20th-century composers and film music, and doesn't shy away from letting the audience know that he's also a fan of Aerosmith and The Who.

The Symphony's great strength is its intrepid explorations in repertoire, which are often quite courageous for a community group. Sunday's concert at the Bayside Performing Arts Center in San Mateo was a typical, moderately bold Redwood Symphony program. The major work in the concert was Aaron Copland's Third Symphony, his large, sprawling ode to American optimism at the close of World War II. This worthy candidate for the role of Great American Symphony is a difficult piece as well as a large one, but the listening experience here was satisfying.

In his talk, Kujawsky confessed that he considers the finale to be somewhat flawed -- too much grandiosity at the beginning, not enough saved for the end. This lack of faith in the composer showed in a somewhat dampened performance of the conclusion. But for three movements or more, it was a finely shaped rendition. The players had the skill to respond to Kujawsky's perceptive shaping of the work's structure and his excellently judged buildup and takedown of climaxes.

A Performance in Context

Let's be clear: The Redwood Symphony is a nonprofessional community orchestra, and you will not hear professional-level performances from it. Ensemble, string intonation, and such are often imperfect. But by the standards of its class of ensemble, the players do quite well.

The wind section is this orchestra's star; the tone is clear and lovely, and their balance of sound is well-judged. The French horns have a smooth tone with fine playing that matches well with the winds. The brass players can be rambunctious and not always there when you need them. The percussion can be a little overpresent. The strings can be stiff and shrill, though they're also capable of expressiveness. There were some difficult slow, exposed, high-pitched passages in the Copland where the first violins were wandering around looking for the right pitch, though at least they were always somewhere in the ballpark.

But was it possible for the listener to get past this and hear the shape, the grandeur, and above all the coherence of Copland's music? Yes, it was. The Redwood Symphony players have jumped ahead from the technical grind to the next course in artistry, which is the ability to convey personality and meaning in what they play. As an artistic interpretation, this outclassed the technically superior but interpretatively lackluster performance of the same work by the professional Symphony Silicon Valley, reviewed in Classical Voice in March 2007.

Gem of a Hungarian Rhapsody

Violin soloist Heather Katz isn't a professional musician. She's co-concertmaster of the orchestra and a 20-year veteran of its ranks. (By day she's a customer service manager at a first-rate library software company.) So she deserves credit for even daring to take on Béla Bartók's rough-and-tumble Rhapsody No. 2 for violin and orchestra, and she got it by the armful, walking offstage with a dozen bouquets brought up by appreciative audience members.

This work is a standard, two-part Hungarian rhapsody, with a slow opening followed by a fast conclusion, but without the smooth elegance that Franz Liszt brought to the form. Bartók wants an untamed, "dirty" country sound. The violin part, filled with grace notes, trills, and double-stops, is designed to bring out the player's personality, but Katz is too tentative a performer to fill this robust role. She has a mean glissando, yet her sound often did not carry. The part's complexities seemed more a struggle than an opportunity for personal expression.

Still, how often do you get to hear this work at all, or even read about it? Some surveys of Bartók's works ignore the two rhapsodies altogether. But they're among the gems of his folk-influenced music, and they deserve occasional outings. Katz had the courage to give it a shot, and certainly the orchestra accompanied her with enthusiasm.

The concert began with an adequate rendition of Antonin Dvořák's great potboiler, the Carnival Overture, under assistant conductor Kristin Link. As in the Copland, the winds were particularly expressive here.

A Critical Assessment

So the Redwood Symphony is worth hearing, because it performs interesting works, and it plays those works better than its members' technical skill ought to allow them to. Next season it returns to its old home at Cañada College in Redwood City (2007-2008 season information is at www.redwoodsymphony.org). The interesting programs will include Edward Elgar's song cycle Sea Pictures on Nov. 18, the contemplative tone poem Old and Lost Rivers by the contemporary American composer Tobias Picker (at Notré Dame de Namur in Belmont, Feb. 9), and three large-scale works of increasing awesomeness: Stravinsky's Symphony of Psalms (also Nov. 18), Mahler's Symphony No. 3 (April 6), and Messiaen's Turangalîla Symphony (June 8).

Nothing intimidates Eric Kujawsky and the Redwood Symphony. I expect to find them playing British composer Havergal Brian's Gothic Symphony one day. But for now, we have the above works. I intend to be there to hear some of this, and anyone who enjoys challenging, interesting modern repertoire should consider being there too.

(David Bratman is a librarian who lives with his lawfully wedded soprano and a wall full of symphony recordings.)

San Mateo Daily Journal
--Keith Kreitman, February 17, 2007
Copyright 2007 San Mateo Daily Journal

Volunteer Orchestra Aces Stravinsky

In the 22 years since he founded the Redwood Symphony, music director Dr. Eric Kujawsky has become noted for bringing the difficult, challenging and/or rarely heard works to mid-Peninsula audiences and the Feb. 4 concert at the Notre Dame de Namur University Theatre in Belmont was no exception.

This volunteer orchestra stands mighty tall among community orchestras, challenging the quality of many regional professional organizations across the land, while programming works of such towering composers as Gustav Mahler, Charles Edward Ives, Stravinsky, Shostakovich, yet still paying homage to the likes of Tchaikovsky, Brahms and Ludwig van Beethoven.

In what may be the orchestra's best concert ever, Dr. Kujawsky returned to what is likely his favorite composer, Igor Stravinsky, with his "Symphony in Three Movements," from 1945, and matched that with Dmitri Shostakovich's Symphony No. 9, out of the same year, in an appropriately named Two Russian Views.

What a juxtaposition! What could better show the artistic consequences of two different political cultures, one rooted in repression, the other in freedom of expression?

Although both were born in Czarist Russia, in that same year, 1945, Shostakovich was still writing in fear and inhibition under the artistic repression of the Soviet system. What was expected to become a monumental paean to the Russian victory against the Nazis, was a disappointment to the bureaucracy as a light and vivid exercise in neoclassicism.

On the other hand, Stravinsky, who left Russia in 1914 and had been breathing the free air of the United States since 1939, was honoring that victory in a liberated, forceful and rather unrestrained and sometimes ear-bustingfashion.

The orchestra that afternoon was tonally at its best, perhaps ever. With another display of its technical proficiency on this really tough stuff, it simply eclipsed any other symphonic group I have audited in this area. Particularly, the winds were super in every respect in both works.

I will not patronize by prefacing with, "For a community symphony orchestra...." when actually, this is probably the best stuff south of the San Francisco Symphony.

Dr. Kujawsky is not a flamboyant exhibitionist on the podium. His every gesture is economical and intended to emphasize some cue. And, the members, many of whom have been with him from the outset, have molded into a such a formidable, mutually-aware ensemble, that they get through these challenging works without breaking sweat.

And, no pretentious formality with tuxedos and gowns in the whole congregation, thank you! Just the music.

Also on the program was soprano Julia Hosack, winner of the Notre Dame de Namur Concerto Competition, a luscious-voiced beauty, singing from the heart three Kurt Weill show tunes, "What Good Would the Moon Be," "Lost in the Stars" and "Saga of Jenny."

Next season, after four long years away, the Redwood Symphony is returning home to Cañada College, as a class and to perform. Already scheduled for next season is Mahler's Third Symphony, Messiaen's Turangilla Symphony, Stravinsky's Symphony of Psalms and Lemony Snicket's "The Composer is Dead."

Can't wait.

San Mateo Times
--Keith Kreitman, April 11, 2006
Copyright 2006 Independent Newspaper Group

Redwood Symphony gives Mahler his Due

BACK IN THE mid-20th century, the works of Gustav Mahler were so rarely performed, I needed to listen to recordings to determine why it was so. Teethed on the Baroque, Classical and Romantic music, I found an answer. They sounded incomprehensible to the traditionally trained ear. Then in the 1960s, Leonard Bernstein, director of the New York Philharmonic and the lord of TV musical commentary, looked down upon these works and declared: "They are good!" And, lo! His acolytes responded: "Yea, verily, they are very good!" And major symphony orchestras picked up the chanting and began programming Mahler's nine symphonies. So did music director Dr. Eric Kujawsky, who 20 years ago founded the Redwood Symphony to be able to program such neglected oddball masterpieces. Now he is on a second go-round with the Mahler symphonies. You know something? I was wrong. Everyone else has been right. Kujawsky proved it on Sunday with a stunning reading of Mahler's Symphony No. 7, "Song of the Night," at the Bayside Performing Arts Center in San Mateo. Move over, you three Bs -- Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms. Make room for an M to join you. Mahler has never been easy. He scored for all sorts of sound sources he called music. Cowbells and noises of all kinds were not unusual. At times he called upon strings to make sound effects upon the bodies of their instruments and, if I recall correctly, one time had musicians perform with the wood sides of their bows on the strings. He has even had brass choirs performing from offstage in the wings. If you're willing to not look for conventional forms, harmonics, sticking to any one key in a musical phrase or for consistent logical resolutions to melodic and harmonic tensions, Mahler may be for you. I did just that. I suspended all former musical prejudices and judgments and let the music just flow over me. Now he is for me, too. Meanwhile, back at the orchestra: Face it, this is a daunting challenge, a 90-minute work so powerful it takes courageous spirits like Kujawky to pull it off. In order to do so, he needed to expand his charges to more than 90, including two harps, a mandolin and guitar. And those like-minded performers who have followed him faithfully through the musical wilderness for many years came through for him again. Aside from the string sections, which are always right on, the brass and woodwind principals were simply outstanding. This is an extraordinarily challenging work, with multiple key changes and complicated rhythmical patterns that could easily trip up any orchestra, but this one stayed the course. Worthy of special mention are principal clarinetist Richard Steinberg, who had much thrown at him, E-flat clarinetist Chris Rohrs and bass clarinetist Bill Menkin; flutist Lynn Klauda; oboist Peter Stahl; bassoonist Kristin Speer; trumpeter Dan Swinehart; trombonist Garo Gagliano, and the entire French horn section, featuring principal Jim Millar. Beside Kujawsky's probing musical intellect and his world-class conducting, what I particularly admire in this orchestra is its lack of pretension. No tuxes, tails or gowns. All in black trousers, shirts and skirts, with the director similarly attired. The musicians gathers not for show, but to pay homage to great music in a grand fashion. On Sunday afternoon, they accomplished just that.

San Mateo Times
--Keith Kreitman, June 14, 2005
Copyright 2005 Independent Newspaper Group

Redwood Symphony excels in Mahler's monumental work

When I was active in symphonic music in the 1940s and 1950s, the works of Gustav Mahler were somewhat of an anathema, rarely performed and generally looked upon as a disorganized mess.

It took New York Philharmonic conductor Leonard Bernstein in the 1960s to teach us how wrong we were and to initiate moving Mahler into the pantheon of musical greats. And it is music director Eric Kujawsky of the Redwood Symphony who repeatedly re-enforces that lesson locally.

After having already mounted all of nine of his completed symphonies in recent years, with the support of the choral group Schola Cantorum and two super sopranos, Kujawsky again undertook Mahler's Symphony No. 2 in C minor, the "Resurrection," at the Bayside Performing Arts Center in San Mateo on Sunday afternoon.

Kujawsky doing Mahler is not a concert. It's an event.

He doesn't only read from the musical notations, the dynamic markings and the instructions, he dissects the work analytically down to the bone. Then he stitches it back together again and directs it without any phony "maestro" shticks.

His literate and perceptive pre-concert introductions to the program are works of art in themselves, not to be missed by serious music-goers.

He rolls up his sleeves and without any pretentious, arty gestures, he dips his hands into that wonderful mix of musicians he has accumulated over the past 20 years and draws out a plum.

And this performance of that 90-minute masterpiece was a plum -- a big one.

He lucked out in one respect: This work draws heavily upon French horn players -- usually the nemesis of most symphony orchestras -- and Kujawsky has eight (count 'em, eight, not four) terrific guys who carried the movements dynamically from both the stage and off in the wings.

That is not to diminish the rest of the orchestra members who always come up with outstanding performances.

Since this is a choral symphony, he also lucked out on two soloists with dramatically beautiful voices: soprano Deborah Berioli and alto Theresa Cardinale.

As usual, the choral group Schola Cantorum, under the direction of Gregory Wait, one of the best anywhere, was superb as it pitched in with some spine-tingling support in the last movement.

There were only two works before the intermission: Johannes Brahms' exquisite "Begrabnisgesang," and "Fest- und Gedenkspruche" performed by Schola Cantorum with support from a smaller orchestra.

I truly believe that we are blessed with several world-class choral groups on this Peninsula and Wait and Schola Cantorum proved me out again.

Next time you see a Mahler symphony programmed, try it. I guarantee you will be seriously moved by these monumental works.

San Mateo Times
--Keith Kreitman, June 17, 2004
Copyright 2004 Independent Newspaper Group

Redwood Symphony a carefully molded venue for music lovers

Ludwig Beethoven wrote great music. It's all there, every note, every phrase, every harmony just right, ready to be performed at all levels of quality down through the centuries.

So, the level of the greatness of his music is fixed. The greatness of its performance, however, depends upon the various directors and performers and their abilities to push interpretations toward the outer limits offered by the creator.

At the San Mateo Performing Arts Center last Sunday afternoon, music director Dr. Eric Kujawsky, his Redwood Symphony, supported by a superb Schola Cantorum chorus, pushed Beethoven's monumental "Symphony No. 9 in D minor," the "Chorale Symphony," pretty close to those outer limits.

 This was the best version I have heard since Leonard Bernstein's outing with the Vienna Philharmonic, some twenty years ago.

If you believe this is a singular opinion, you would need to have witnessed an audience of over one thousand leap to a standing ovation after the last notes, as if its seats had been wire-sprung.

When I first viewed this orchestra at the Cañada College eighteen years ago, with an audience hardly larger than its membership, I had the feeling that this was the start of something big and I have been proven right. The director and orchestra have grown in stature each year, presenting remarkably adventurous and difficult old and new works, and now stand at the greatest heights ever.

Of course they aren't perfect, but they almost stand alone in our area in challenging the best of the professional regional symphony orchestras. 

Kujawsky doesn't waste a single hand or bodily movement to ego-driven pretence. He pushes his charges toward the very outer edges of dynamics and expression as he digs deeply for the composer's original intent.

Further, as a musicologist, he is highly knowledgeable historically and unsurpassed among non-professional conductors in the Bay Area and beyond.  In his presentations of the second (molto vivace) and the last (presto-allegro assai) movements, particularly, he had the orchestra drive the notes with such force that they penetrated the audience's emotional defenses and brought tears of joy.

Schola Cantorum, under the direction of Gregory Wait is certainly among the nation's best chorale groups. Along with soloists, soprano Christine Springer, contralto Delia Voitoff-Bauman, tenor Mark Adams and bass John Minagro it helped drive the final movement's evocation of poet Friedrich von Schiller's "Ode to Joy" to divine musical heights.

I would not wish to have any musical work of my own on that program. All else pales by comparison. But, the orchestra did open with a pleasant reading of Olivier Messiaen's 1991 work "Un Sourire," a work with some unique orchestration effects that really goes nowhere.

Then, one of my favorite violinists, the Bay Area's Karen Bentley Pollick, gave a beautifully lyrical reading of "The Red Violin," a "Chaconne for Violin and Orchestra," by John Corigliano, a 1997 work employing melodic lines ranging from the sublime to the grotesque, all developed from themes he had written for the movie "The Red Violin."

Still the concert's strength was a Beethoven Ninth that will not soon be forgotten.

San Mateo Times
--Keith Kreitman, February 2004
Copyright 2004 Independent Newspaper Group

Redwood Symphony a carefully molded venue for music lovers

The story of the Redwood Symphony is the story of Music Director Eric Kujawsky. He founded it 19 years ago and has carefully molded it, until today it functions on a plane unique among the non-professional symphony orchestras in the Bay Area. Now it is attracting a growing audience.

It is true that Kujawsky caters in a limited way to the conventional tastes of serious music lovers. But the core of his influence, and the reason why so many professional musicians from around the Bay Area are attracted to perform with him, is championing and exploring difficult and infrequently programmed works.

He has introduced many Peninsula audiences to the works of Adams, Bartok, Copland, Ives, Lutoslawski, all the Mahler symphonies, Shostakovich and Stravinsky.

In a concert at Notre Dame de Namur University in Belmont on Sunday afternoon, for example, he premiered a fascinating work by the contemporary Austrian composer H.K. Gruber entitled "Frankenstein."

Who else would program a work that features not only the conventional orchestra instruments, but is expanded to hosepipes, toy clarinets, slide whistles, kazoos, rachets, toy trumpets, baby's rattles, bird warblers, toy piano, toy merry-go-round, motor horn and the piece de resistance, bursting paper bags -- along with a brilliant narrator, Ken Malucelli, reciting nutty poetry -- and make it work?

It proves, if nothing else, that good music can be scored for the most bizarre of instruments. Actually, it is a charming, rhythmically complex work put together by a highly skilled composer with a weirdly macabre sense of humor. It really takes superior musicians to execute this musical joke, and Kujawsky's audience will be able to say they heard it here first.

It is the casualness of the orchestra that bonds it with the audiences. No pretentious formal clothes. No tuxedos. No fancy gowns. They are all dressed in casual dark clothes and Kujawsky conducts in a dark, long sleeve sports shirt. It is clear that it is the music itself that holds primacy with these dedicated performers.

Conducting may be what Kujawsky will be best remembered best for. There is no flamboyant sweeping baton. Direction is contained, direct, pointed and necessary and the performers clearly follow.

That is what made his reading of the Johannes Brahms Symphony No. 2 in D major such a joyous experience. Kujawsky is also a cerebral conductor whose extensive studies in musicology not only make him a fascinating pre-program lecturer, but enable him to draw historic nuances from complex works that other conductors may miss.

The featured soloist was the winner of the Notre Dame de Namur University Concerto Competition, 23-year-old Anna Khaydarova, from Tashkent, Uzbekistan. With flowing technical mastery, she showed herself to be a potentially formidable musical force in Sergey Prokofiev's early Piano Concerto No. 1 in D-flat major.

Assistant conductor Kristin Link handled the opening piece, "March" from "Les Troyens" by Hector Berlioz. This could be called a "holiday for the brass." As they bathed the auditorium in the richly romantic harmonies of that French rebel, the current crop of musicians has a richness of tone that would be envied by any symphony orchestra,

The Redwood Symphony has come a long, long way.

San Mateo Times
--Keith Kreitman, November 2003
Copyright 2003 Independent Newspaper Group

It was a triumph!  The Redwood Symphony's November 15th reading of Gustav Mahler's monumental, Das Lied von der Erde, at the San Mateo Performing Arts Center, under the direction of guest conductor Dr. Jason Klein, demonstrates again how really good this orchestra is.

The Redwood Symphony is in a class by itself. It cannot be measured on a scale with other volunteer community orchestras, or even many regional professional orchestras, because it undertakes works that most would not program, both because of their difficulties and that they are too far off from the mainstream to attract sizeable audiences.

No longhair affectations here. There is no catering to traditional staging and attire. No after-the-concert galas. No tuxedos. Dark shirts or sleeveless T shirts and pants for the men and black slacks for the ladies will do.

It is only the music that counts. And, this orchestra has programmed all of the Mahler symphonies, some more than once. It has even tackled Ives, as well as rarely heard Bartok, Copland, and Lutoslawski. There have also been adventuresome staged readings of George Gershwin's Porgy and Bess, and Gilbert and Sullivan's The Mikado.

The growth of the orchestra is due to the single-minded drive of the young musical director Dr. Eric Kujawsky who, since 1985, without supportive fund-raising efforts by any auxiliary organizations, has been attempting to firmly foot it on the Peninsula and bnild up an appreciative audience.

Das Lied von der Erde is really an intensely introspective symphony. It was one of Mahler's last compositions and demonstrates in the maturity of the scoring how widely he had broken through the traditional boundaries of classical and romantic music.

Guest conductor Klein of the Saratoga Symphony, understood all of this and, with his strong and controlling beat, did not miss a single nuance in the dynamics of this intricate work.

This reading also was blessed with two wonderful vocal soloists. Mark Adams has one of the most powerful and beautifully controlled tenor voices I have ever heard.  And, the overall richness of contralto Delia Voitoff-Bauman's soaring passages was operatic vocalization at its best.

But, there is more. Mahler makes great demands on the brass and they came through. In this performance, the five French horn players, particularly, are a section that most professional conductors would kill for. The wood winds matched with some striking solo work by clarinetist Richard Steinberg, flutist Michelle Davis, oboist Peter Stahl and bassoonist Kristin Speer.

The program opened with a short piece, Parade, a 1995 work commissioned by the San Francisco Symphony to the eclectic modernist Lou Harrison. It is a cacophony of strange sounds, drawn from a myriad of international musical traditions, emanating from the strings, percussion, two harps and three keyboard instruments that somehow come together in an non-harmoniously pleasing way.

The concerto on the program was Concierto de Aranjuez, a 1939 work for orchestra and guitar by Spanish composer Joaquin Rodrigo. The soloist, a modest Michael Bautista, won the audience' heart with his interpretation as he made the guitar strings sing.

His performance of the second movement alone, an exquisitely soft and lyrical elegy, was worth the price of admission and establishes him as a major musical interpreter on the instrument.

However, even with electronic amplification, the guitar is no match for a full symphony orchestra unless the conductor restrains his one hundred instrumentalists. And, conductor Klein did do an outstanding job in modulating the dynamics in order to give the soloist a chance to shine.

Since most major works by Spanish composers are not heavily orchestrated, the openness puts much pressure on the inner voices, especially the wood winds, but they were all flawless in entrances and intonation.

It was a great concert that should have filled the hall.

San Mateo Times
--Keith Kreitman, June 2003
Copyright 2003 Independent Newspaper Group

Redwood Symphony a carefully molded venue for music lovers

It was a triumph! The shame is that the Redwood Symphony's presentation of a staged version of Gilbert and Sullivan's "The Mikado," was only a one-shot performance at the San Mateo Performing Arts Center on June 14th. This deserves repeat performances, it was that good.

In fact, it was the best musical event I have reviewed this year. And, it was accomplished without scenery and only two piano benches for props, with the principal singers sharing a bare stage with the orchestra and the wonderful Peninsula Cantare chorus, under music director Janice Gunderson.

There is no question, not only is The Mikado the best of the 14 collaborations by librettist W. S. Gilbert and composer Arthur Sullivan, but, it stands alone as the most popular masterpiece of comic opera.

And, why not with such arias as, "The Flowers That Bloom in the Spring," "A More Humane Mikado (to let the punishment fit the crime)," and "Willow, Titwillow," among others that have become standards throughout the years?

Eric Kujawsky re-confirmed my opinion that he is the premiere and most musically scholarly conductor of non-professional orchestras in the Bay Area, an orchestra he himself created 17 years ago.

Not only does he dig in, without useless dramatic baton choreography, and extract the best from his dedicated volunteer musicians, but he steps in where other conductors rarely dare. In the past, he has also programmed a staged "Porgy and Bess," all of the Mahler symphonies and almost all of the Twentieth Century composers from Adams to Stravinsky with a daring side trip to a Charles Ives Symphony that took three orchestras to perform simultaneously.

The principals in "The Mikado," were not only uniformly first-rate singers, but a bunch of super comic actors in this whimsical fantasy of a plot. Nanki-Poo (David Friburg), the son and heir to the throne of the Mikado (Todd Schurk), runs away and becomes a wandering minstrel when his father betroths him to the ugly and elderly Katisha (Catherine Sheldon).

He falls in love with Yum-Yum (Cheryl Blalock), who is about to marry her guardian, Ko-Ko (Ken Malucelli), a comical aging tailor in the town of Titipu. He has been appointed by the Mikado to the highest office in the land, Lord High Executioner and is counseled by Poo-Bah (Paul Zawilski), who had engineered himself into Lord High Everything Else.

The chorus not only backs up the action vocally, but actively reacts to the events on the stage itself.

Gilbert's satirical wit, biting comments on social realities, and the poetry in his driving lyrics are brilliant. He did not cater to the less learned of his audiences but elevated them to experience the glory and majesty in the English language.

The precision comic timing and facial expressions by all was really impressive, especially stage director Ken Malucelli in the role of Ko-Ko, Paul Zawilski as the Poo-Bah and Catherine Sheldon as the rejected Katisha.

In the vocal department Sheldon and Cheryl Blalock as Yum-Yum soared, with Blalock's smooth and rich fullness in the upper registers particularly pleasurable to the ear.

If this production were a repeat engagement, I would say it is a "don't miss."

Redwood Symphony Does It Again; You Should Have Been There.

San Mateo Times
--Keith Kreitman, January 2002
Copyright 2002 Independent Newspaper Group

The Redwood Symphony held its annual "An Evening of Chamber Music," at the Cañada College Theatre in Redwood City, on January 26, featuring members of the orchestra.

The orchestra, itself, is remarkable in that it offers programs many cuts above the typical community symphonies. Founder and music director, Dr. Eric Kujawsky, as much a musicologist, ventures into musical landscapes where other community conductors fear to tread.

The program alternated between the conventional and the rarely heard. It opened with an intriguing work, "Suite Francaise: d'apres Claude Gervaise," out of early in the last century by the French composer Francis Poulenc. Being principally self-taught, Poulenc appears to be far less influenced by the past in melodic and harmonic lines and even in scoring, so that his work is refreshing to the ears of jaded chamber music devotees.

No conventional instrumentation for Poulenc: two each of oboes, bassoons and trumpets, three trombones, a harpsichord (of all things) and percussion. Unique! This was conducted by the orchestra's principal oboist, George Yefchak.

Two movements from the "String Quintet in C Major, Op. 163 (posthumous)," by Franz Schubert followed. Has any composer ever woven more beautiful melodic lines? Enough said.

In my days in music school in the late 1940's, the German composer Paul Hindemith was the going rage. I couldn't see what the fuss was then and I am still not able to do so now. His "Trombone Sonata (1941)," is an example, a tough nut to crack.

Although, beautifully executed by Garo Gagliano, with pianist Clint Cancio, it still sounds like two people playing different compositions at the same time, neither going anywhere. It also appears to be more piano than trombone. Am I missing something?

Gagliano has the disconcerting habit of beating time with his right foot while standing to perform, which draws attention away from his really smooth slide work and beautiful brass tone.

Finding Clara Schumann's "Piano Trio (1846) Op.17" programmed brings to mind how rarely the work of women composers are given voice in concert performances. That is a shame, because this Romantic composition by the wife of Robert Schumann, also a great pianist in her time, is as charming and mature as many more often programmed male composers.

The big hit of the evening was "Dead Elvis," by American composer Michael Daugherty, a music professor at the University of Michigan and composer in residence with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. It is a unique blending of "pop culture" and good old fashioned orchestral style.

This featured bassoonist Maria Yuin, decked out in garish Elvis Presley Las Vegas glitter, and a really strange combination of E-flat clarinet, trumpet, trombone, violin, bass viol and percussion.

But, it works! Full of whimsy and packed with original melodic lines and color effects, it really rocks! Yuin received the biggest ovation of the evening with her non self-conscious parody of the late singer, down to kneeling on the stage to reach the deepest note on her instrument.

Give Kujawsky credit again for the broad scope of his musical vision, embracing the new when it meets the test of quality and appears to lead us into the musical future.

San Mateo Times
--Keith Kreitman, June 2001
Copyright 2001 Independent Newspaper Group

Redwood Symphony exceeds expectations

When I first reviewed a Redwood Symphony concert a number of years ago, I commented upon the extensive musical knowledge and the conducting skills of music director, Dr. Eric Kujawsky, his courageous programming and the excellent musicians.

In fact, it didn't seem proper to refer to the Redwood Symphony as a community orchestra -- its quality is much nearer that of a regional professional symphony orchestra.

In concert in the Cañada College Theatre, the Redwood Symphony exceeded expectations once again. The orchestra is Kujawsky's personal creation.

In the past he has fearlessly tackled -- with more or less success but never a failure -- all of the Mahler symphonies, and works by Adams, Bartk, Copland, Ives, Lutoslawski, Shostakovich and Stravinsky, among others, and even programmed a concert version of George Gershwin's Porgy and Bess.

Hardly typical community symphony orchestra fare.

This time he undertook two rarely heard works by English composer Gustav Holst, and the Redwood Symphony's outstanding brass section was an immeasurable asset in assuring the grandeur of this program.

In the opening, Second Suite for Military Band (Op.28 No. 2, 1911), the orchestra was devoid of strings other than the string basses and, in effect, had the instrumentation of a military band.

Featuring a number of familiar English tunes, among them, "Swansea Town," "Cloudy Banks," "Irish Washerwoman," and "Greensleeves," the band had the audience's feet tapping with its brassy dynamics.

The better known work by Holst, The Planets (Op.32, 1916, is a collection of seven movements about seven planets, rooted in astrology. It is a musical interpretation of the influences of Mars, Venus, Mercury, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune and closes with a chilling dimming out of the stage lights as an ethereal chorus vocalizes backstage.

Kujawsky reaffirmed his skills at controlling a massive orchestra engaged in juggling a very complicated score. The dynamic effects of the augmented brass section -- six French Horns, seven trumpets, five trombones, a euphonium and a tuba -- along with two saxophones, two harps and a celesta, was just short of sensational.

The variety of tonal color built in by the composer from movement to movement was dazzling. What more could be expected?

William Walton's Viola Concerto was sandwiched between these two works, performed by Doug Tomm, the winner of the Redwood Symphony Concerto Competition, and directed by assistant conductor Kristin Link.

Redwood City Tribune
--Paul Cummings, June 1999
Copyright 1999 Independent Newspaper Group

Redwood Symphony Scores
Sizable crowd at Super Bowl Sunday chamber concert

At a time when most Americans were riveted to television sets for the annual game of games known as the Super Bowl, a sizable gathering in the Cañada College Theatre was focused on the Redwood Symphony's annual chamber music concert.

The players in this Sunday afternoon event were decidedly less competitive and violent than their gridiron counterparts, but no less talented in their own way. And the fans, or audience, while not seen doing "the wave" or displaying huge banners extolling the virtues of the players. Nevertheless expressed a lively gratitude for the performance.

The wonderfully varied program began with a work for chamber orchestra, "Siegfried Idyll," composed by Richard Wagner in 1870 as a surprise fit for his new wife, Cosima, who had born him a son named Siegfried 18 months earlier. One of the few non-theatrical compositions in his oeuvre, "Siegfried Idyll" is distinctive for its long-breathed lyricism and bucolic serenity, both of which were well served by the musicians drawn from the Redwood Symphony on Sunday. Under the direction of Kristin Link, the symphony's assistant conductor, the 11-piece ensemble have careful attention to the long phrases and slow harmonic rhythm which imbue the work with either an ethereal beauty or, if played poorly, a monotonous tedium. The former prevailed, except for some intonation lapses, especially between the strings and winds, as the ensemble performed with the sensitivity and endurance needed to successfully bring off this difficult piece.

Claude Debussy's Sonata for Flute, Viola and Harp, composed in 1916, was next. Although not the last work by this great French composer, as erroneously announced by harpist Suki Russack, it is one of his last works. Similarly, while she was correct in telling the audience that it contains several neoclassical traitsthe chief one being the formal structureit is also an unmistakable product of the musical revolution which inspired the development of impressionism in the first decade of the century.

Whatever the accuracy of her remarks, Russack's harp playing was extremely precise, showing a thorough grasp of the late-Debussy style as well as her instrument's technical potential. Her cohorts were equally adept, as Doug Tomm, viola, and Michelle Davis, flute, effortlessly passed difficult thematic material from one to the other.

This music lives and dies by nuance of dynamics and musical effects which are akin to an artist's brush strokes on canvas; all three musicians painted convincing pictures, with subtle shadings that did not obscure the primary line.

Following intermission was the Trio for Horn, Violin and Piano by Johannes Brahms. Violinist Heather Katz gave the introductory remarks prior to performing this work, tersely informing us of possible sources of inspiration for Brahms, especially the recent death of his mother as an influence for the "Adagio mesto" movement.

What a pleasure to hear chamber music where the pianist plays as an equal member of the group, rather than in the spurious role of accompanist or background instrument. the pianist in question last Sunday, Daniel glover, was always sensitive to instrumental balance but did no hesitate to let the Steinway ring in forte passages such as at the opening and closing of the scherzo. The slow movement, in E flat minor, found all three players exuding warm "espressivo;" yet more could have been done with dynamics to emphasize the direction of musical lines. Despite some very sharp low notes, horn player Rachel Harvey proved herself in command of her instrument. Tricky passages in the fourth movement were negotiated well, but several notes were dropped due to an awkward page turn in this movementa problem usually solved by a photocopying machine. Nevertheless, the musical momentum was quickly regained. As with her colleagues, violinist Katz displayed a keen understanding of Brahms' penchant for dense polyphony, playing with conviction and musical purpose whether her part was prominent or not.

As the closing work on this concert, Eric Kujawsky, the music director of the Redwood Symphony, programmed Kurt Weill's "Little Threepenny Music," an instrumental adaptation of the main pieces from the composer's "Threepenny Opera," penned in 1928. Scored for eight wind instruments, piano, percussion, guitar and banjoa synthesizer replaced the latter two on Sundaythis tuneful suite evokes the cabaret jazz era of the 1920s.

The solo playing at Cañada was most impressive, as the musicians seemed to relish the opportunity to stand in relief on the musical landscape. Trombonist Colline Lee played several solo passages, both muted and open, with confident brilliance in movements two through four.

Kujawsky captured the spirit of the work with appropriate tempi, pulsating rhythms and surprise endings to several movements achieved by playing endings as if they were beginnings. The opening and closing movements were tainted by overblown clarinet solos, played with much joie de vivre, but just too loud.

Several other musicians deserve mention for outstanding solo work: Steve Ruppenthal, trumpet and flugelhorn; Victor Lee, percussion; Patricia Harrell, flute; George Yefchak, piano; Claudia Zornow, soprano and alto saxophone; Alan Hebert, tenor saxophone; Dave Silon, tuba.

For the meager price of $12 at the door for this concert, I can't imagine where you could go in the Bay Area for a better musical value. The musicianship approaches professional caliber at times, and is consistently above average for amateur players. Kujawsky is to be congratulated for superb programmingthere were four substantial works, each a masterpiece in the chamber music repertoire, and one led easily to the next.

Moreover, no one fumbled, stepped out of bounds or committed a personal foul. On the contrary, the action at this venue probably required more teamwork than at that slightly more popular Sunday afternoon event.

The next super concert by the Redwood Symphony will take place at 3 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 21 at the College of Notre Dame in Belmont, and will feature the orchestra's concerto competition winner. Judging from Sunday's concert, it will be well worth seeing, and chances are good that tickets won't have to be scalped.

Redwood City Tribune
--Paul Cummings, April 25, 1998
Copyright 1998 Independent Newspaper Group

Bohemian splendor at Redwood Symphony

They've got the right stuff, they're on a roll and there's no stopping them now.

Choose your clich; all the positive ones apply. The Redwood Symphony and its exuberant director, Eric Kujawsky, set a higher standard for community orchestras with every performance, including last Sunday's standing-room-only concert at Cañada College.

From the outset a question lurked: Why is this theater so full for a community orchestra performance, especially when sunny weather beckons? Having both played in and witnessed many community concerts, I am painfully aware that there are often more people on stage than in the audience.

Okay, I thought, this is a large orchestra joined by a chorus of more than 50 singers, the Skyline College Choir, so multiply each performer by two friends or family members and you can account for about 300 in the audience. Yet nearly twice that many were actually there.

Maybe it's the program, I thought, now groping for an explanation.

It consisted of a concert version of the opera La Bohme by Giacomo Puccini. Add the mass appeal of a popular opera to the Redwood Symphony's established following--perhaps that explains the clogged aisles.

Not quite. A concert version of an opera is like what you get at your local car dealer for the advertised sale price: four wheels and a frame; it's too often a stripped-down vehicle which barely deserves to be called a car.

Similarly, remove the costumes, sets, scenery, staging and lighting from an opera and you are left with a concert version. Not too appealing, huh?

Was it a free concert? Nope.

Was Pavorotti to make a surprise appearance as Rodolpho? Hardly.

Ruth Ann Swenson as Mimi? No way.

Anyone who was in the Cañada College theater for this concert knows why this community orchestra can attract such a large crowd. This is simply a very good orchestra joined by fine soloists and an adequate choir, led by a dynamic conductor, performing a great opera with broad appeal, and charging very reasonable ticket prices.

In the grand scheme of things, the weaknesses were few and far between.

The orchestra overpowered the soloists in several tutti passages, which as due not so much to poor musicianship as to the orchestra being simply too large to begin with.

It is for vocal-to-instrumental balance that an opera orchestra is located--often squeezed--in a pit. The orchestra is certainly not meant to balloon to nearly 100 instruments when elevated to the stage for concert versions, even for a Wagner opera.

The exception occurs when the soloists have the raw power of a Placido Domingo or Kathleen Battle, which Sunday's group did not. Aside from having to compete with the inflated orchestra, these soloists were well suited to the medium-sized Cañada Theater, lacking power only at the extremes of their range.

While Kathleen Bayler's Mimi was sung with beauty and precision, she often turned her head so far to the side when addressing Rodolpho that she was inaudible. One could also question the casting of the tallest, most robust-appearing Mimi I've ever seen, causing somewhat of a physical mismatch with Chris Corley, who sang Rodolpho. Yet, Mimi's pathetic decline in Act 4, physical as well as emotional, was most convincing.

Mounting a concert version of an opera demands more courage than a fully staged production in some ways, because there is unrelenting focus on the music itself. Kujawsky is to be congratulated for ensuring that his charges--orchestra, chorus and soloists--were also well prepared.

As for the overall quality of the performance, there was as much beauty and clarity inside the Cañada theater as outdoors on this sunny Sunday afternoon.

Teaser on page 1:
Fab Four Conductors
Redwood Symphony tackles 'Ives'

San Mateo Times
--Paul Cummings, February 28, 1998
Copyright 1998 Independent Newspaper Group

Spangenberg Auditorium in Palo Alto came alive last Sunday afternoon with a vibrant performance by the Redwood Symphony of two widely disparate works from the early years of this century.

Directed by Eric Kujawsky and supplemented by the 46 voices of the Peninsula Cantare, the orchestra played the rarely-heard Symphony No. 4 by Charles Ives, followed by the Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor by Sergei Rachmaninov -- a work which has seen a sudden spurt in popularity due to its central role in the recent motion picture "Shine."

From the outset, every square inch of Spangenberg's ample stage was consumed by musicians, causing some patrons to wonder, no doubt, which tour de force by Wagner or Mahler was to be played. Instead, they were regaled with music by the quintessential American composer Charles Ives, who readily acknowledged the influence of Richard Wagner on his music.

So bountiful was this musical array that some performers spilled into the audience in the form of a small percussion ensemble, termed the "Offstage Percussion Battery," which was placed right-center in the auditorium to provide spatial resonance, a key feature in the symphony and one of the composer's many innovations. To expand the musical landscape further, a small group of strings, termed the "Distant Choir," was positioned in a stage-right wind, lending an ethereal quality to passages of the first movement.

Four different conductors kept the various ensembles in sync: Kristin Link, Robert Marcus and George Yefchak in addition to Dr. Kujawsky, who is to be commended for not trying to "go it alone" as some conductors have done with this symphony.

The first movement, Prelude: Maestoso, wastes no time in revealing Ives' penchant for polytonality, in which various sections of the orchestra play in different keys simultaneously. As with many of his musical traits, Ives probably inherited the use of polytonal structures from his father, who, according to Charles, "Would have us sing a tune in E flat, but play the accompaniment in C."

While the "Distant Choir" of strings quietly played a snippet from "Nearer My God to Thee," one of many hymns quoted in the work, the main orchestra and mixed chorus resolutely intoned the hymn "Watchman, Tell Us of the Night," in an entirely different tonality. Kujawsky lucidly portrayed the contrast between these two elements, though I would have preferred that the chamber strings be positioned in the auditorium rather than backstage, to highlight the stereophonic effect.
In answer to the question of meaning -- asked of the watchman in the prelude -- the second movement, Allegretto, presents, in the words of Ives, "an exciting, easy and worldly progress through life" contrasting "with the trials of the Pilgrims in their journey through the swamps and rough country." These rival philosophies find musical expression in the juxtaposition of densely textured, raucous passages of upbeat American folk songs with quotations of simple hymns and other tunes, scored in thinner texture, such as the ditty played so effortlessly by concertmaster Birgitte Moyer.

To ensure that the composer's many brief quotations of folk songs would emerge unscathed from the thick layers of sound in this difficult movement, Kujawsky wisely had several soloists stand up to play their unique slice of musical Americana. The orchestra deserves special recognition for managing to stay together, as some were playing in a meter of four while others were playing in three, compounded by divergent downbeats.

That such unwieldy walls of polytonal, polyrhythmic sound as this so-called "comedy" movement exudes did not descend into cacophony is a tribute to the fine baton skills displayed by both Kujawsky and Link, ensuring that the comedy did not become a tragedy.

The third movement, a double fugue, featured the Redwood Symphony's sumptuous string section playing with warmth and polish, as if they savored the composer's abrupt return to a traditional idiom.

To be sure, there were imperfections, such as uneven syncopation in the celli section as well as an unwanted solo during a grand pause. The "offstage Percussion Battery" had an unfortunate case of the dropsies between movements three and four, but I was much more distracted by late-arriving patrons who saw nothing wrong with parading in during, rather than between, movements.

Closing this third movement was a quotation from Handel's "Joy to the World," played with reverent solemnity by trombonist Matt Calvert.

The "Distant Choir's" hymn from the first movement, "Nearer My God to Thee," returns in the fourth movement, Largo maestoso, punctuated by the continuous pulse of the offstage percussion.

With all four conductors called upon during parts of this finale, the orchestra and chorus again displayed their musical acumen by matching Ives' fierce individualism with an equally fierce independence of rhythm and tonality. The result was a grandiose conclusion to a work of monumental proportions.

Following the strident harmonies of the Ives symphony, the third Piano Concerto by Rachmaninoff sounded like something from maybe 50 or 60 years earlier, an apparent musical anachronism by comparison. Amazingly, however, it was composed at roughly the same time as the Ives piece.

The soloist, Thomas Hansen, proved himself to be worthy of this incredibly difficult concerto, playing with a marvelous command of technique. Only in the treacherous cadenza of the first movement did I detect any flaw, when several notes were dropped, but a quick recovery put him back in control.

Most impressive was Hansen's reluctance to overuse the pedal, a powerful temptation for a pianist in such a difficult work as this. Instead, his playing was refreshingly clean and precise, negotiating the lightning-fast notes of the waltz section at the end of the second movement, for example, with particular aplomb.

The orchestra dutifully fulfilled its function as partner to the soloist, playing with genuine fervor but never overshadowing the piano. One could have hoped for cleaner spiccato playing from the violins in the third movement and a less ragged viola soli at the end of movement tow, but there was also some wonderful individual work -- such as the French horn solo by Sheila Snyder at the end of the second movement.

Again, Maestro Kujawsky deserves credit for guiding his charges with a keen sense of musical balance, always mindful of the primary musical line. The standing ovation given by the Spangenberg audience was well earned.

Despite a few lapses, I doubt that any community orchestra, comprising exclusively volunteer musicians as does the Redwood Symphony, could have played these imposing compositions any better than was done on this occasion.

It is no wonder that Kujawsky attracts so many outstanding players to his ensemble, including solo artists such as Hansen, in view of the unique repertoire -- sometimes suggested by orchestra members -- the democratic system of rotating chairs within sections, the opportunity to record CDs -- look for them on the Clarity label -- and the luxury of playing under a conductor who possesses solid baton technique and is so assiduous in his preparation for performance.

Redwood City Tribune
--Keith Kreitman, June 14, 1997
Copyright 1997 Independent Newspaper Group

When violinist Eugene Fodor took his place in front of the Redwood Symphony Orchestra to perform the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto in D major at the San Mateo Performing Arts Center, the first word that flashed across my mind was "class." This world-class performer is movie-actor handsome, with an ear-to-ear smile that is capable of self-lighting any concert hall.

However, when he moved into his performing stance, the name "Heifitz" replaced it. There was something about his look of confidence and poise that is reminiscent of that legendary "great" who was his last teacher.

But after he began performing, the title "Maestro" (Master) simply blotted out all else. After pointing out that I cannot believe his bow work and fingering can be surpassed by any current performer, I will move on to what really distinguishes him from almost all others I have heard in recent years.

That tone! Oh, Lord, what a tone! I never believed in my lifetime I would ever hear any violinist approach Izkak Perlman's rapturous sound. Not only does Fodor approach him, he pushes him mightily with a rounded richness, sometimes bold, sometimes fragile, within which he moves effortlessly from the deepest viola-like sonority of his lower strings to the incredible crystalline clarity and roundness of his highest register.

What that man can coax out of that itty-bitty instrument! I became possessed trying to figure out whether he was using a Stradivarius violin or the more mellow Guarnerius, and finally concluded he was using some mysterious in-between.

I finally found out that it was, indeed, a mellow Guarneri del Gesu from which he finesses the rounder sharper sound of a Strad, effortlessly. Nothing demonstrated this skill more than the lyrically exquisite second movement of the Tchaikovsky Concerto. He surprised me by beginning with an uncustomarily reserved mellow tone but then almost imperceptibly moved into, and finished off with, the more conventional heart-wrenching Slavic sharpness that characterizes most performers.

His cadenza at the end of the first movement should be a Master's Class in simple, unhurried and confident improvisation, masterfully executed without that old-fashioned virtuoso display of ego.

So, he dared to perform both Paganini and Tchaikovsky on the same program, neither of whom was noted for respecting the fragile construction of the violin!

One can saw the violin in half in the first and third movements of the Tchaikovsky, and in any composition by the fiery Paganini, but Fodor negotiated the jumps, runs and arpeggios with such fluidly, that it would seem as if butter had been poured over the whole scene. He seems to know no technical limitations. In conductor, Eric Kujawsky, Fodor has found the equivalent of a spiritual brother. Their sensitivity to the cues of the other seemed almost mystical at times. It is a sheer revelation to be witness to their eye contact during performance.

Having reached that level of artistry, I wondered how Eric Kujawsky and the orchestra could approach it with their own major presentation, Igor Stravinsky's Firebird Suite." Well, I learned my lesson! If you ever want to see Kujawsky go "full-throttle" just hand him the music of his favorite composer, Igor Stravinsky.

And, the Redwood Symphony sped along right behind him with bravura work by the strings and outstanding woodwind and harp performances by the principals. Oboist Peter Stahl was impressive again as always, and harpist Suki Russack gave a seamless performance in the Stravinsky. Since the orchestra often alternates principals, I must give high compliments to both clarinetists, Richard Steinberg in the Stravinsky and Joan Hebert in the Tchaikovsky Concerto accompaniment. The rounded fullness of tone of flutists, Michelle Davis and Patricia Harrell, simply stood out in the woodwind choir, and bassoonist Richard Palm made some very difficult passages sound very easy in the Stravinsky.

By the way, there is hardly any orchestra that can outdo the sonority and focus of the Redwood Symphony brass in a triple forte!

The audience in this, sadly only half-filled, auditorium was mesmerized and insisted on applauding between each movement and standing ovations at the end. They would gladly have had him back for encore after encore.

The concert opened with the Brahms Academic Festival Overture, which in my opinion is ripe for retiring as an "old war horse" in favor of the more courageous programming of later composers by the new, younger generation of conductors.

Great and memorable artistic experience.

Sorry if you missed it!

San Mateo County Times
--Cheryl North, June 10, 1997
Copyright 1997

Fodor dazzles with flashy, substantial effort

Violinist Eugene Fodor makes it easy to understand why the name Paganini has become almost synonymous with the thrills and chills of virtuoso violin playing. Fodor was the guest soloist performing with Maestro Eric Kujawsky and the Redwood Symphony during Sunday's concert at the San Mateo Performing Arts Center.

Fodor provided a revealing re-creation of the fabled 19th century virtuosos's charm. Nicolo Paganini was born poor and obscure in Genoa, Italy in 1782 and died world-famous in Nice, France in 1840. A whole body of lore and risen around his persona, including suspicions that he had sold his soul to the devil so he could produce sonic wonders on a simple violin. He was also a provocative composer whose works have been adapted to other instruments and even whole orchestras.

Fodor's silken, but assertive tonal production Sunday, combined with his solid musical sense, thoroughly virtuosic finger work and matinee-idol stage presence, made him the leading candidate to play the lead in any future biography of the legendary Paganini.

The American violinist dazzled his local audience with flashy but substantial performances of Paganini's Le Streghe (Witches Dance) and his Variations of a Theme by Mozart [sic], in addition to a sturdy rendition of Tchaikovsky's beloved Violin Concerto.

Fodor's violin assumed mesmerizing, masculine, almost magical qualities as he made the initial theme of Le Streghe sound like a lush-voiced operatic tenor singing a serenade while the orchestral strings plucked out a listing guitar-like accompaniment.

While Kujawsky and the orchestra provided firm accompaniment, Fodor soared through the breathtaking pyrotechnics of the work. There were brilliant passages during which his left hand plucked out a sprinkling of melody notes to supplement the right arm's bowed song.

There was also an array of double and triple stops (several notes sounding at once) that cascaded over the whole range of the instrument, some of which were like diamond flashed from the violin's high harmonic range. At times Fodor's sounded like three violins in one.

Paganini's Mozart [sic] variations were presented as an encore in response to a standing ovation from the audience following "le Streghe." Fodor returned to the stage with three of his instrument's strings dangling loosely from the fingerboard. He explained to the audience that the work he was about to perform would be played on one string only.

With a quintet of orchestral strings clustered around him, he then proceeded to do well-nigh impossible things on his single working string. The musical delights overflowed from his bow. He even managed to imbue one particular melodic figure with two totally different timbres--making it sound as though it were being repeated on not one but two distinctly different stringed instruments.

While his tonal production was consistently gorgeous during the Tchaikovsky, I was a little put off by the leaden tempo and mechanical-sounding phrasing with which both Fodor and the orchestra proceeded through the work. It sounded like the musicians were making their way through a sea of thick syrup rather than gliding elegantly through Tchaikovsky's evocative landscape. There were indeed beautiful moments, but too often momentum was lost and obscured by mechanical phrasing.

Other works on the program were Brahms' Academic Festival Overture, and Stravinsky's Suite from The Firebird.

The Stravinsky work was a genuine tour de force for Kujawsky and the orchestra. Kujawsky's clean, yet expressive podium technique elicited impressive results by maintaining a high level of excitement throughout the course of the work, with panoply of sonic treats along the way.

While the orchestra's horn section needs more polish and tonal precision, its string sections sounded unified and strong, with their lower-voiced members providing wonderfully atmospheric rumbles at the Suite's onset.

The higher strings followed with a series of glistening glissandi (chromatic slides over a series of notes) and excellent playing from the percussion section kept the rhythms propulsive. There were wonderful solos emanating from oboe, bassoon, flute and clarinet.

Redwood City Tribune
--Keith Kreitman, April 27, 1997
Copyright 1997 Independent Newspaper Group

It is simply indisputable. Dr. Eric Kujawsky, music director of the Redwood Symphony, has a foot in the first rank of orchestral conductors. He re-affirmed this with the orchestra's presentation of Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 1 at Cañada College on April 20th.

His American directness and lack of affectation frame a directing technique that should be put on film and used for teaching purposes. Furthermore, the range of his interpretive skills, from the pre-classical to modernism, seem to have no limits.

With eloquent pre-concert comments and excellent stage rapport with the audience, he batters away at that which separates those across the footlights from the music and musicians on stage and bonds all into a relationship that draws enthusiastic standing ovations at the conclusions of his concerts.

Historically, there have been variations of modern conducting styles that range from the extreme minimalist technique of the late Fritz Reiner--a pencil length baton beating the tempo while eyebrow lifts and frowns controlled dynamics--to the manic style of Leonard Bernstein, who jumped two feet into the air at times conducting intense passages.

Happily, Kujawsky falls in the moderate center with an ambidextrous control of the orchestra: tempo with a smooth and clear right-handed baton and dynamic control with a remarkably expressive left hand.

Control is the keyword here. He seems to reach right into the orchestra to draw out the most extremes of loud and push back in for the clearest of softness.

The orchestra itself simply soared in the Mahler Symphony.

The augmented brass sections were sensational, and the percussion section proved again that it is just about the best around. The strings seemed capable of any nuance, from the naked interplay with the rest of the orchestra to the most lyrical and full-blown bowing imaginable. Individual performers who particularly impressed were oboist Peter Stahl, bass clarinetist Robert Marcus, and the entire bass violin section.

The Mahler Symphony could be used as a test piece for any symphony orchestra. There are segments of openness at times that leave the instrumentalists naked to the world, with notations all over the range and interval separations between soloists so great they would try any musician's soul. No one faltered, however.

I even have trouble classifying this as a conventional symphonic form. The variety of styles within the movements alone are among the greatest I have heard in a single work.

Since the resurrection of Mahler by Leonard Bernstein and others in the 1960's, his reputation has steadily grown to rival Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms. With performances such as this by the Redwood Symphony, I am hard put to argue with that.

I wish I could have been as enthusiastic about the first part of the program. It is a hallmark of Kujawsky that he is willing to give first hearings to composers of today, and this time he presented The Right Road Lost by Frank La Rocca.

This short work, at times impressive in its full orchestration, really said little that would lead me to believe that it will permanently enter the orchestral repertoire.

But the biggest disappointment of the afternoon was Russian-born Nina Postolovskaya's interpretation of the Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 3. In this new world of electronically produced music, the only justification for paying admission to a concert hall is to hear soloists present unique and moving human interpretations.

This soloist gave us a player-piano, mechanically accurate reading of a great work. It apparently rubbed off on the orchestra, which supported in an equally mechanical fashion.

I am particularly irked when a pianist throws back the head to gaze soulfully toward the heavens, while little gets transmitted from the heart and soul to the strings.

For a contrast, visualize the great German pianist, Rudolph Serkin, performing the same work. A stocky little man with thick glasses and the charisma of a bookkeeper, he never looked to the heavens for musical support. His stock in trade was bouncing up and down on the piano bench while transmitting musical impulses through his limbs that made those same Steinway pianos hop up on their toes and sing as they danced about the stage.

Madame Postolovskaya has a long way to go to match that.

On the other hand, Kujawsky and the Redwood Symphony have clearly become the benchmark for orchestral performance on the mid-Peninsula.

Their next program will be on June 8th at the San Mateo Performing Arts Center with American violinist Eugene Fodor.

I am going to mark my calendar. I won't miss it.