Show served as prelude to performance this weekend
Review by Elizabeth Warnimont
Special to The Herald
The San Francisco Sinfonietta visited Benicia on Sunday, performing a benefit concert for Arts Benicia to the delight of a sizable crowd at the Clock Tower. Urs Leonhardt Steiner directed a full orchestra and choir, while Benicia artist Pam Dixon completed a pair of response paintings on canvas during the performance.
It was an all-out Benicia affair: Gourmet hors d’oeuvres were provided by Pappas Restaurant and First Street Café, and a cash wine bar was provided by Vino Paladini, the restaurant at the Inn and Spa at Benicia Bay in downtown Benicia.
Contributions of cash, goods and services were donated by a long list of local residents and businesses. “We are grateful to be able to join this community as actual residents because it is made up of such generous, creative, amazing people,” said Arts Benicia Director Larnie Fox, who recently purchased a home here.
After brief introductions by Fox and Steiner, the concert opened with Schubert’s Symphony No. 8 in B minor, the composer’s famous “Unfinished Symphony” that is considered by many to be his grandest.
It is a piece rich with power and nuance, an exquisite, pastoral sound picture with a contrasting, ominous pulse that enters at regular intervals. The result is intense and emotional, joining themes of joy and delight, majesty and humility, simplicity and a powerful and tragic underlying bass theme — all combined in a way that is astounding to listen to and easy to follow, as if it were built upon some natural, human progression of emotions. The group performed the piece brilliantly, filling the Clock Tower hall with majestic sound.
Guests were then treated to a leisurely intermission, allowing time to sample the gourmet snacks, observe Dixon at her easel, and visit a special sculpture created by Benicia artist Sharon Payne-Bolton: a “spirit vessel” containing the names of departed loved ones. Visitors were encouraged to write the name of a loved one on a slip of paper and place it in the boat, as part of the dedication for Mozart’s Requiem Mass, which the Sinfonietta performed next.
A large chorus, what looked to be about 50 singers, lined up on risers behind the orchestra to perform Mozart’s famous unfinished work, and it was remarkable how well the sound from the orchestra balanced the voices, never overwhelming them. In the second, Kyrie movement, even the rich horn section could be heard clearly while not overpowering the singers. At times the bass and tenor sections of the choir were a bit quiet, but by the time the group arrived at the Offertorium movement, near the middle of the piece, the sound became more balanced.
If parts of the middle section of the Mass got a bit sleepy, that was soon overcome with a glorious conclusion. The last four, short movements — Sanctus, Benedictus, Agnus Dei and Communio — were strong and inspired. A sense of awe could be felt in the room before the audience began rising from their seats to give the performers a well-deserved, noisy ovation.
The San Francisco Sinfonietta was formed in 1994 with the aim of inspiring appreciation of music in communities. The group has recorded more than a dozen CDs, produced film scores and collaborated with classical groups in the U.S. and abroad.
And while the Sinfonietta’s visit to Benicia was a rare treat, it will perform again Sunday at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church in San Francisco. For details, visit sfsinfonietta.org or call 415-401-9229.