Review: Santa Barbara Chamber Orchestra at Broad Stage


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There was a heavy Taiwanese presence at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica for the Santa Barbara Chamber Orchestra’s run-out concert Thursday night. No wonder, what with the sponsorship of the concert by the Taiwanese United Fund and the unveiling of a new Romance for Cello and Orchestra by Taiwanese composer Gordon Chin as played by cellist Felix Fan, whose parents come from Taipei.

Ultimately, though, the biggest attention-getter of the night was another Fan solo vehicle, a cello concerto from the bent imagination of Austrian pianist-composer Friedrich Gulda. Gulda became somewhat of an outlaw in his time, a virtuoso steeped in the Viennese classics who developed a yen for jazz (one of his early Viennese chums was future jazz great Joe Zawinul), knit skullcaps, singing to his audience, and publicity stunts like faking his own death. His actual death in 2000 at 69 attracted scant notice here, but in Vienna, the record shops had displays of his recordings in the windows for months after.


This Cello Concerto must have been Gulda’s way of flipping off all of the musical Establishment -- especially the puritanical avant-garde. The thing kicks off with an out-and-out rock ‘n’ roll blues but then veers into folk-like local tunes of the most deliberately homely sort, an oom-pah-band waltz, and finally the circus, with no development anywhere. All of this sounded guileless -- like Charles Ives in a populist mood without the complexities. Fan deadpanned his way through all of the fun on amplified cello as music director Heiichiro Ohyama led a wind band and rhythm section.

Next to this, Chin’s piece was from another planet. Though titled ‘Romance,’ the prevailing mood of this 13 1/2-minute meditation was anything but -- filled with discordant doubts and insecurities (which, come to think of it, play a part in many romances) after a glittering opening. Fan’s tone quality was appropriate to the material -- edgy, with a slight coarseness.

Shifting from one Austrian-based renegade to another, Ohyama followed Gulda with Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony -- played straight ahead with no eccentricities and few subtleties, culminating in a loud, thick, fierce finale. The Santa Barbara ensemble -- which has been around for 31 years, 26 of them under Ohyama -- sounded a bit scrappy in the violins but otherwise game.

Finally, soprano Hsun Hsun Hsu warbled “Taiwan The Formosa,” a one-minute, would-be national anthem by Tyzen Hsiao whose placement right after the freedom-fighting proclamations of Beethoven was no accident.

-- Richard S. Ginell