Reviews

 

SMT: San Mateo Times

RCT: Redwood City Tribune

SFCV: San Francisco Classical Voice

 

Redwood Symphony

“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.

—San Francisco Classical Voice

 

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 (Requiem), the regular core group must be heard to be believed.”

—San Francisco Classical Voice

 

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

--Redwood City Tribune

 

"Dr. Eric Kujawsky, Musical Director of the Redwood Symphony has, in eleven years, from, scratch, fashioned an orchestra that has risen to a level of excellence rarely demonstrated in any community orchestra. In short, for the first time in my seventy-one years, I participated in a standing ovation for such an orchestra. They are that good! I was listening for some weaknesses in the ensemble, but, if there were any, I didn't detect them."

--Redwood City Tribune

 

Since its conception by Eric Kujawsky in 1985, Redwood Symphony has been an orchestra that is unique in its approach to making music. The ensemble performs music that is considered beyond the scope of a community orchestra: all of the Mahler symphonies, Lutoslawski's Third and Fourth Symphonies, Corigliano's Symphony No. 1, Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring, Petrushka, Oedipus Rex and Symphony in Three Movements, Bartók's Concerto for Orchestra, Ives' Symphony No. 4, music by John Adams and other late 20th century composers, in addition to the more standard repertoire. What makes this achievement truly remarkable is the fact that this is an all-volunteer community orchestra, made up of amateurs and professionals. No members are paid and "ringers" are not hired to fill out the ranks. The result is professional execution coupled with the amateur's infectious delight in taking risks and doing exciting works for the first time.

 

"It is true that all the members of the orchestra are without exception amateurs, but I am convinced that there is not one who could not earn his or her way in the professional symphony ranks."

--Redwood City Tribune

 

Redwood Symphony has six CDs currently in release, available at www.amazon.com.

 

On Redwood Symphony's Petrushka (Clarity Recordings): "Another great recording from Clarity...The performance and sonics are as good as there is."

--Bound for Sound

 

On Redwood Symphony's The Rite of Spring (Clarity Recordings): "Hobbled for 40 years by a cultural climate that demanded that a performance illuminate the music's structure rather than its emotional content, the work has not been properly recorded since Muti and the Philadelphians' electrifying reading on EMI--and even that was hampered by a mediocre recording with restricted dynamic range. Now there's one that does Rite full justice. Don't be put off by the unfamiliar performers; what matters is how familiar they are with the music, and they know it inside out. This is a stunning Rite, and the recording will blow your socks off."

 --Stereophile Magazine, "Records to Die For," (1997).

 

In a region studded with major ensembles, Redwood Symphony, in a short period of time, has established itself in the forefront in quality and innovation.

"Kujawsky and the Redwood Symphony have clearly become the benchmark for orchestral performance on the mid-Peninsula."

--Redwood City Tribune

 

"Kujawsky has an unbelievably coherent ensemble under his deft and sure control...This is an orchestra worthy of the name "symphony" and gave an accounting itself worthy of the best currently performing."

 --Peninsula Times-Tribune

 

S.J. orchestra delivers inspiring program

By Georgia Rowe
for the Mercury News

03/13/2008 03:27:00 AM PDT

 

John Corigliano once proclaimed that he would "never write a symphony." So far, he's written three, and his Symphony No. 2 for string orchestra was the featured work on the San Jose Chamber Orchestra's excellent program Sunday evening at Le Petit Trianon.

 

Under guest conductor Eric Kujawsky, the ensemble also played music for strings by Carl Nielsen and Alfred Schnittke. But it was Corigliano's Pulitzer Prize-winning 2001 score that created the program's most vibrant impression.

 

Kujawsky, founder of the Redwood Symphony, devoted the first half of the concert to this weighty, often harrowing five-movement work. Built of material from the composer's earlier String Quartet, the symphony is Corigliano's response to the AIDS crisis, and it expresses, in uncompromising musical language, a range of emotions from sorrow to outrage.

 

It is also rich in orchestral color and texture - at one point, I could have sworn I heard the sound of a pipe organ emanating from the stage - and unusual effects, employing string techniques that include glissandi, mutes and the fierce snapping of Bartók-style pizzicatos.

 

The first movement Prelude immediately establishes an atmosphere of tension and foreboding; an angry, agitated Scherzo follows. At the center of the work is a haunting Nocturne: the cellos and basses sing a mournful "night music" theme, while the violins and violas grieve and exclaim.

 

Violas introduce the theme of the fourth movement Fugue, in which time becomes a relative proposition, and the symphony ends with a virtuosic Postlude.

 

Kujawsky did a masterful job conducting the piece, communicating clearly with each section and eliciting a unified response from the ensemble. With the exception of a small miscue in the Postlude, the orchestra played with urgency and precision; Corigliano's music emerged sounding both pitiless and movingly heartfelt.

 

In the second half, Nielsen's "Little Suite for String Orchestra" also received an enveloping performance. Kujawsky noted he's made it a policy "never to do any composer's Op. 1," but he made an exception here, and it was a good choice.

 

The "Little Suite" is a young man's score - written in 1888, when the Danish composer was just 23 - but it demonstrates much of the skill and facility that Nielsen used to greater effect in his later symphonies.

 

With Kujawsky acting as an energetic advocate for the work, the outer movements sounded characteristically vivacious: packed with handsome, expansive melodies and driven by a keen sense of forward motion.

 

The central Intermezzo, composed as a lilting waltz, was especially fine; Kujawsky coaxed wonderful Old World warmth from the strings, and the music moved with buoyant feeling.

 

In between the Symphony and the Suite, there was Schnittke's larky 1977 "Moz-Art a la Haydn: A Game With Music." Many composers have written musical jokes - no one enjoyed a good laugh as much as Mozart - and this is just another entry in the canon, one that sends up a big chunk of musical history in just under 13 minutes.

 

The piece starts with fragments from Mozart's "Pantalon and Colombine" and Symphony No. 40 and Haydn's "Farewell" Symphony, woven into a goofy sonic collage - acerbic melodies, weird dance episodes and moments of tender lyricism. At the center are two violin soloists who push the envelope past the limits of endurance until the entire enterprise collapses.

 

To these ears, the joke expired before the performance did, but Kujawsky mined the score for all it was worth, and violinists Cynthia Baehr and Patricia Burnham displayed excellent deadpan humor.

 

 

Eric Kujawsky & Redwood Symphony

 

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 [for the Berlioz Requiem at Davies Symphony Hall] 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. –SFCV

 

It is simply indisputable.  Dr. Eric Kujawsky, music director of the Redwood Symphony, has a foot in the first rank of orchestral conductors.  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. –RCT

 

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.

 

One word: Powerful!

—San Mateo Daily Journal

Scaling The Heights In San Mateo

 

"No guts, no glory," read the sign on my former boss's desk. It's a lesson that has clearly been taken to heart by Eric Kujawsky, music director of the Redwood Symphony...Throwing caution to the wind, the intrepid maestro gathered his forces on Sunday afternoon to scale one of the more difficult peaks in the standard orchestral repertoire, Gustav Mahler's monumental Symphony No. 8 (1906). Often called the Symphony of a Thousand, it requires a gigantic orchestra, two full mixed choruses, children's chorus, and as many as eight soloists…

 

Kujawsky led a wellpaced performance marked more by exuberance than majestic sweep...Kujawsky was in fine control of his forces, ably supporting his large team of soloists.

--San Francisco Classical Voice

 

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 a panoply of sonic treats along the way.

—SMT

 

Kujawsky brought off his concert with jocular ease, annotating it with wit and brevity to break the ice. He is secure in his medium, establishing a rapport with his players and audience, unafraid to tackle tough pieces, all with the ready air of informality.—Paul Hertelendy, artssf.com

 

…Kujawsky's probing musical intellect and his world-class conducting…

---SMT

 

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 (Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony) was a plum -- a big one.

---SMT

 

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 Canada 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.

---SMT

 

As a conductor, Kujawsky has grown into a dominating presence.  With a simple, clear and strong baton technique, he exercises remarkable control over his performers.

–RCT

 

In fact, it (concert version of “The Mikado”) was the best musical event I have reviewed this year…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.

---SMT

 

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.—RCT

 

On Eric Kujawsky’s Clarity recording of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring:

 

Hobbled for 40 years by a cultural climate that demanded that a performance illuminate the music’s structure rather than its emotional content, the work has not been properly recorded since Muti and the Philadelphians’ electrifying reading on EMI--and even that was hampered by a mediocre recording with restricted dynamic range.

 

Now there’s one that does Rite full justice.  Don’t be put off by the unfamiliar performers; what matters is how familiar they are with the music, and they know it inside out.  This is a stunning Rite, and the recording will blow your socks off. --Stereophile Magazine, in its 1997 listing of “Records to Die For.”

 

There is no question that Redwood Symphony entered the rank of the handful of top Northern California orchestras with a stellar performance of the Third Symphony by Lutoslawski...

 

The job of the conductor involves different left hand and right hand cures and incredible presence of mind.  I have not often seen a conductor who can give such precise cues as Dr. Kujawsky, and it is a wonderment why this man is not taking on the kind of great orchestra that the media and the big newspapers limit themselves to exclusively. ---Full Score

 

Kujawsky has an unbelievably coherent ensemble under his deft and sure control...This is an orchestra worthy of the name “symphony” and gave an accounting itself worthy of the best currently performing. --Peninsula Times-Tribune

 

[Kujawsky’s] strength as a music director is not just his high ambitions for himself and his orchestra, or his clear concept of the work he conducted, but his conducting itself...It was clean and concise.  When he gave a cue, it was crystal clear.  His style is energetic and enthusiastic without being excessive.

–SMT

 

Conductor Eric Kujawsky has a marvelous way of turning each Redwood Symphony concert into a music appreciation class.  His often humorous way of explaining the intricacies of the music, giving background information on the composers and using the orchestra to demonstrate the various elements of the music his is discussing creates a warm feeling of intimacy between the folks in the audience and those on stage and greatly adds to the fun.

--Peninsula Times-Tribune.

 

Reviews of Redwood Symphony:

 

The New Yorker, June 25, 2007, Alex Ross

 

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?

 

Alex Ross’ blog, The Rest is Noise (June 29, 2007).  :

 

Here is a belated follow-up to last week's column on the orchestras of Indianapolis, Nashville, and Alabama. Each ensemble's website is well stocked with information on its doings, so there's not much to add there. But I'd like to say a little more about other orchestras that I explored online and would like to have seen live.

 

One is the Redwood Symphony, a volunteer orchestra based in the Silicon Valley area. As I mention in the piece, this has to be one of the few community orchestras in the country that has performed all of Mahler's symphonies, even the Eighth. It has also lately essayed such challenging repertory as the Sibelius Sixth Symphony, Berio's Rendering, Ives's Fourth, and Copland's Third. Eric Kujawsky, the Redwood's conductor, sent me a couple of sample CDs, and I was particularly impressed by the energy of the playing on the all-American disc. Incidentally, to produce the famous hammerblows in Mahler's Sixth, the orchestra deployed a large wooden box that matched Mahler's original specifications.

 

It is true that all the members of the orchestra are without exception amateurs, but I am convinced that there is not one who could not earn his or her way in the professional symphony ranks.

 

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

--RCT

 

Dr. Eric Kujawsky, Musical Director of the Redwood Symphony has, in eleven years, from, scratch, fashioned an orchestra that has risen to a level of excellence rarely demonstrated in any community orchestra. In short, for the first time in my seventy-one years, I participated in a standing ovation for such an orchestra.  They are that good!

 

I was listening for some weaknesses in the ensemble, but, if there were any, I didn’t detect them.  I always like to compliment some individual performers, but I don’t dare to do so in this case because I would most certainly miss someone.

–RCT

 

They’ve got the right stuff, they’re on a roll and there’s no stopping them now.  Choose your cliché; 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.

–RCT

 

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.

--RCT

 

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

–RCT

 

On Redwood Symphony’s Clarity recording of Stravinsky’s Petrushka:

 

Another great recording from Clarity...The performance and sonics are as good as there is.

--Bound for Sound

 

There is no question that Redwood Symphony entered the rank of the handful of top Northern California orchestras with a stellar performance of the Third Symphony by Lutoslawski...

 

The job of the conductor involves different left hand and right hand cures and incredible presence of mind.  I have not often seen a conductor who can give such precise cues as Dr. Kujawsky, and it is a wonderment why this man is not taking on the kind of great orchestra that the media and the big newspapers limit themselves to exclusively.

---Full Score

 

Kujawsky has an unbelievably coherent ensemble under his deft and sure control...This is an orchestra worthy of the name “symphony” and gave an accounting itself worthy of the best currently performing.

--Peninsula Times-Tribune

 

The Redwood Symphony is a must-see among community orchestra on the Peninsula with more than just strong, visionary leadership from the podium.  The orchestra sets itself apart because of its ambition in programming and overall goals.

–SMT

 

New Reviews

 

Sweeney Todd a demonic romp

June 07, 2013 By David Bratman San Mateo Daily Journal

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.

 

CONDUCTOR SHEDS LIGHT ON DARK CORNERS  
artssf, the independent observer of San Francisco Bay Area music and dance, Week of March 10-17, 2008

SAN JOSE---Nobody enjoys conducting an orchestra more than Eric Kujawsky, who traveled down from the Peninsula March 9 to lead Barbara Day Turner’s San José Chamber Orchestra with a bold all-modern program.
Despite one glaring glitch entry of musicians and some unfamiliarity with the hall’s acoustics, Kujawsky brought off his concert with jocular ease, annotating it with wit and brevity to break the ice. He is secure in his medium, establishing a rapport with his players and audience, unafraid to tackle tough pieces, all with the ready air of informality.

S.J. orchestra delivers inspiring program

By Georgia Rowe
for the Mercury News

03/13/2008 03:27:00 AM PDT


John Corigliano once proclaimed that he would "never write a symphony." So far, he's written three, and his Symphony No. 2 for string orchestra was the featured work on the San Jose Chamber Orchestra's excellent program Sunday evening at Le Petit Trianon.

 

Under guest conductor Eric Kujawsky, the ensemble also played music for strings by Carl Nielsen and Alfred Schnittke. But it was Corigliano's Pulitzer Prize-winning 2001 score that created the program's most vibrant impression.

 

Kujawsky, founder of the Redwood Symphony, devoted the first half of the concert to this weighty, often harrowing five-movement work. Built of material from the composer's earlier String Quartet, the symphony is Corigliano's response to the AIDS crisis, and it expresses, in uncompromising musical language, a range of emotions from sorrow to outrage.

 

It is also rich in orchestral color and texture - at one point, I could have sworn I heard the sound of a pipe organ emanating from the stage - and unusual effects, employing string techniques that include glissandi, mutes and the fierce snapping of Bartók-style pizzicatos.

 

The first movement Prelude immediately establishes an atmosphere of tension and foreboding; an angry, agitated Scherzo follows. At the center of the work is a haunting Nocturne: the cellos and basses sing a mournful "night music" theme, while the violins and violas grieve and exclaim.

 

Violas introduce the theme of the fourth movement Fugue, in which time becomes a relative proposition, and the symphony ends with a virtuosic Postlude.

 

Kujawsky did a masterful job conducting the piece, communicating clearly with each section and eliciting a unified response from the ensemble. With the exception of a small miscue in the Postlude, the orchestra played with urgency and precision; Corigliano's music emerged sounding both pitiless and movingly heartfelt.

 

In the second half, Nielsen's "Little Suite for String Orchestra" also received an enveloping performance. Kujawsky noted he's made it a policy "never to do any composer's Op. 1," but he made an exception here, and it was a good choice.

 

The "Little Suite" is a young man's score - written in 1888, when the Danish composer was just 23 - but it demonstrates much of the skill and facility that Nielsen used to greater effect in his later symphonies.

 

With Kujawsky acting as an energetic advocate for the work, the outer movements sounded characteristically vivacious: packed with handsome, expansive melodies and driven by a keen sense of forward motion.

 

The central Intermezzo, composed as a lilting waltz, was especially fine; Kujawsky coaxed wonderful Old World warmth from the strings, and the music moved with buoyant feeling.

 

In between the Symphony and the Suite, there was Schnittke's larky 1977 "Moz-Art a la Haydn: A Game With Music." Many composers have written musical jokes - no one enjoyed a good laugh as much as Mozart - and this is just another entry in the canon, one that sends up a big chunk of musical history in just under 13 minutes.

 

The piece starts with fragments from Mozart's "Pantalon and Colombine" and Symphony No. 40 and Haydn's "Farewell" Symphony, woven into a goofy sonic collage - acerbic melodies, weird dance episodes and moments of tender lyricism. At the center are two violin soloists who push the envelope past the limits of endurance until the entire enterprise collapses.

 

To these ears, the joke expired before the performance did, but Kujawsky mined the score for all it was worth, and violinists Cynthia Baehr and Patricia Burnham displayed excellent deadpan humor.

 

By Janos Gereben

San Francisco Classical Voice

 

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.

 

San Francisco Classical Voice

http://www.sfcv.org/reviews/redwood-symphony/the-splendor-of-a-symphonic-sweeney-todd

The Splendor of a Symphonic Sweeney Todd

Redwood Symphony

By Janos Gereben

 

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.

 

The San Mateo Daily Journal

April 15, 2008

 Redwood Symphony’s Kujawsky tames Mahler

By Keith Kreitman

 

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 Canada 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?

Copyright © 2013 - 2016 - Eric Kujawsky - all rights reserved.