Asher Raboy, ConductorReviews

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Asher Raboy, Conductor
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Asher Raboy, Conductor Asher Raboy, Conductor Asher Raboy, Conductor
Asher Raboy, Conductor

Asher Raboy, ConductorRaboy plays Raboy – Napa Valley Symphony presents win/win program

With Asher Raboy wrapping up his 20th and final season as music director and conductor of the Napa Valley Symphony Orchestra, it was most fitting that Sunday’s concert program focused on the maestro as composer.

A telling retrospective of works composed by Raboy over the past two decades, the weekend concert not only featured the world premiere of a new tone poem but also a return visit by acclaimed pianist Leon Bates for a repeat performance of the maestro’s piano concerto — a work that the celebrated artist premiered here in 2005.

Wet and wind-whipped by an intense spring storm, Sunday’s audience was welcomed by a warm and sunny conductor eager, as always, to share informative and often amusing anecdotes about the works at hand.

Raboy talked about how his intent for the opening work, “Phoenix,” was to conjure up “new hope, new ideas, new birth.” However, putting note to paper was, at the outset, a slog — until “a personal experience” inspired him. To hear him tell it, the work practically wrote itself from that point on.

Not wanting his motivation to overshadow the composition, Raboy kept the work’s inspiration to himself. But as he was readying Sunday’s retrospective, he thought the time had come to tell all. “I thought it was time to share what that personal experience was. But I forgot. I can only hope for you that the composition is a lot better than my memory.”

And, indeed it was. A joyful fanfare, the piece features glorious, uplifting brass and driving, majestic strings. A full orchestral sound filled Lincoln Theater at the California Veterans Home, taking the collective mind off wet feet and damp frocks — sending us to a sunny plain where the music is warm, radiant and enveloping.

Dedicated “to the memory of a great man” (the composer’s father who emigrated here from “somewhere south of the Ukraine”), Raboy’s “Orchestral Dances” was composed a decade ago. For this listener, it was the highlight of the afternoon. As the composer intended, the work captured the spirit, the feel of eastern Europe.

Ranging from song of praise to ethnic dance rhythms, the work expressed the composer’s musical quest for his roots, expressing both his father’s “love of life and exotic ethnicity.”

“Orchestral Dances” is an ebullient, romantic work. It evokes the life and times of the wandering Jew, with folk-style syncopated rhythms that bring to mind the cultures and dances of eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. On more than one occasion, the rippling strings and flowing woodwinds were reminiscent of Smetana’s “Ma Vlast.” The 70-member Napa Valley Symphony Orchestra delivered a sweeping, warm-hearted performance under the baton of the composer, with Raboy inspiring melodic mastery from all hands. It was a glorious reading of a delightful work.

The composer attempted to harness the power of Mother Nature in “The Coming Storm,” a musical tempest that flashes with thunder and lightning. “This is not a drizzle,” Raboy promised Sunday’s audience, and then he and orchestra proceeded to unleash a musical maelstrom that serves a metaphor for the unplanned, unforeseen, untoward disruptions that cause a break in stride.

Dedicated to his late wife, Lisa, the sudden onslaught of nature symbolizes, perhaps, the assault of cancer that eventually took her life. Humanity, in the whirl of a devastating storm, comes through, but not necessarily with flying colors. A flute passage brings us back to earth, affording Mother Nature an opportunity to survey what has survived her wrath. A flute and strings remind us we must go on, we must survive even the tempests that buffet our lives, that life goes on in tranquil fashion once the storm clouds radiate from view.

Based on pastoral artwork by Nancy Schleicher, Raboy’s piano concerto was written with Sunday’s guest artist in mind. Once again, Bates was clearly up to the task, polishing off arpeggios and solo passages with power and eloquence.

The piano introduces the work and dominates throughout. Arpeggios, full chords and flourishes transcend melodic lines, although the well-rehearsed orchestra offers countless ethereal lines in support of the featured instrument.

For his romantic, pastorally rich piano concerto, Raboy employs an orchestra of strings with full woodwinds augmented by French horns and trumpets. It’s an accessible work with attention-getting oboe/piano trade-offs, soaring strings and the soloist’s fingers dancing up and down the keyboard. Although it includes a salute to nature (a familiar figure in Raboy’s compositions), the opening and closing solo piano passages of the middle movement are lovely and calming.

Driving rhythms and pop accents mark the final segment, which, at times, reminds the listener of Hollywood film scores. Exploring the complex set of rhythms and dynamic chords, Bates did his very best to put the maestro’s concerto in the best light.

The program included as well the world premiere of a work Raboy completed only two weeks ago. A tone poem dedicated to his second wife, Katy, “The Journey” might reflect a journey through time, through life, from place to place or a spiritual one, the composer allowed. However, he left the interpretation to the listener. Save for a few plodding passages, this is an energetic, even muscular work that begins, it seems, with a marking of con brio and progresses shortly into fortississimo. There’s an inspirational theme as well, which, at first blush, might very well serve as the maestro’s anthem.

Raboy will wrap up his wine country tenure with guest cellist Zuill Bailey on May 23, a concert that features Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition” and Bloch’s “Schelomo.”

But it was sure nice to schedule an afternoon when Raboy played Raboy. Sunday’s concert turned out to be a win/win event for orchestra and audience alike. Bravo, maestro!

–Napa Valley Register