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Saving the best for last: SLO Symphony's final concert of the season 

click to enlarge ROLL OVER:  Violin virtuoso Jennifer Frautschi commanded a standing ovation for her performance of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 61. - PHOTO COURTESY OF LISA NAUFUL
  • ROLL OVER: Violin virtuoso Jennifer Frautschi commanded a standing ovation for her performance of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 61.

Saturday night at the Cohan Center, Michael Nowak celebrated his 30th straight year as SLO Symphony conductor by doing what he does so well: presenting smart programs and working with star soloists.

The blend of Stravinsky’s cinematic, percussive Petrushka (1947), Beethoven’s Romantic landmark violin concerto, and the astonishing artistry of guest soloist Jennifer Frautschi created a most vivid evening of music, perhaps the strongest concert of the symphony’s 2013-14 season. 

Nowak chose wisely by setting Stravinsky’s astringent modernism as the opening act to the passionate expressiveness of Beethoven.

The great Russian composed this music for a ballet, which tells the dark story of an animate puppet’s fate at a carnival. As Nowak explained in a brief pre-concert talk, the music leads the listener through the various scenes by shifting its time signatures, or even deploying two simultaneously. It’s percussive, cinematic, highly detailed, and seems to change color and direction every few seconds.

Was Nowak’s long experience playing in film scores (such as Godzilla, which opens next week) what aided him in maintaining coherence here? In his hands, Stravinsky’s ear-movie scurried right along like a spring breeze.

While the strings were full and pleasing, the percussive dimension dominated this performance. Marimba, tambourine, and triangle all gave a convincing “carnival” sound, and the dramatic splashes of piano (Susan Azaret Davies) and tympani (Courtney Wolfe) emphasized the drama, especially in the closing sections.

The orchestra, too, had drilled themselves well in Stravinsky’s dreamlike language. Special mention should go to Chris Woodruff, who played a tough trumpet solo, and to featured woodwinds Alice McGonigal (flute) and Lisa Nauful (bassoon). But Stravinsky’s conception is the star of Petrushka.

And speaking of “star,” where do we begin with Jennifer Frautschi? She glowed in sleeveless fuchsia, and her 1722 Stradivarius violin glowed a burnished amber in her hands. Her beautiful face yearning and imperious by turns, this Pasadena native commanded the stage with a treatment of Beethoven’s violin concerto that left this listener hoping that she makes San Luis Obispo a regular stop.

The opening “Allegro” movement, one of Beethoven’s greatest middle-period meditations on the individual’s role in society (among many other things), gives the orchestra plenty of time to establish a context for the violin. Once Frautschi entered, the bird took flight; the mind surrendered to the spirit.

Frautschi danced as she played the heroic solo parts and cadenzas as though the spirit of the composer were in a state of becoming, and she was wrestling it into presence. Cadenzas became essays in the violin as a medium for the giant sound-world Beethoven carried in his head.

I heard minimal ego in her playing. Her articulation of each note had an unforced naturalness that, at times, reminded me more of the French performance tradition than the German. The sweetness of her tone on the Stradivarius was as palpable as a strawberry at Farmers Market. At 25 minutes, the movement was unhurried and expressive.

The second and third movements, played without pause, moved from tenderness into joy. Frautschi’s playing, especially in the final “Rondo” section, suggested a forceful assertion of the Romantic self—impetuous, authentic, passionate in its convictions.

The concert, performed in memory of Frautschi’s violin mentor Stewart M. Rupp, was sponsored by Clifford W. Chapman and Gene A. Shidler, and Silas and Jimmie Brewer. Next year’s season, Nowak announced, will include, for the first time, a “subscribers’ choice” concert. Season subscribers and supporters will be asked to choose a program from a number of musical options.

I hope it’s not too early to vote? I’ll take anything that Jennifer Frautschi plays in.


James Cushing was SLO Poet Laureate from 2008-2010. Tell him where you stand on the formal-vs.-free controversy via Arts Editor Erin C. Messer at


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