Santa Cecilia Orchestra Spotlights its Musicians

Photo by Ted AYALA SCO music director Sonia Marie de Leon de Vega, left, with pianist Natasha Marin and flautist Selpy Kerkonian.


One of the conventions of classical music concerts that I’ll never understand is certain orchestras’ reliance on “star” soloists to bring feet tramping into their concert venues. This isn’t to say that certain musicians of renown aren’t deserving of their fame–but so are very many rank-and-file musicians in many orchestras. Though they may not have the name recognition of someone “famous”, they often offer musical pleasures that are equal or even greater than their “brand name” competitors. Yet many orchestras ignore the excellent musicians whom without they would be lost. Fortunately, some music directors know better.

Last Sunday evening at Occidental College’s Thorne Hall, the Santa Cecilia Orchestra (SCO) performed a mixed program of baroque music and 20th century music from Argentina. Enjoying pride of place on this program were a clutch of the SCO’s own musicians, now enjoying their star turn before the audience. Pianist Natasha Marin, whose impressive pianism had the audience at the edge of their seats at an SCO chamber concert last month, was guest soloist in Johann Sebastian Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No.5.

The Concerto in G minor for 2 Violins and Cello by Antonio Vivaldi from his L’Estro Armonico collection of concertos started off the program. Those expecting an anemic interpretation that tips its hat to period performance practice probably found themselves disappointed. Sonia Marie de Leon de Vega and the SCO played this baroque music with luscious phrasing and warm vibrato that was unabashedly romantic in conception. Not that the SCO didn’t keep Vivaldi’s rhythmic creases crisply starched – far from it. Rhythmic vigor pulsated from the exquisite mantle of string sound that enfolded violinists Alexander Kalman and Anna Kostyuchek. Against the backdrop of the SCO’s strings, Kalman’s and Kostyuchek’s violins soared with rich and sweet tone.

The music of Johann Sebastian Bach fittingly followed Vivaldi. Bach deeply admired the work of Vivaldi; his musical language was deeply enriched through the study of his Italian contemporary’s works. Bach even transcribed several of Vivaldi’s orchestral works for keyboard as a display of admiration for the Italian’s music.

Again, the SCO played a warm and red-blooded interpretation of this beloved work. De Leon de Vega and the SCO eschewed the embalmed sonorities favored by adherents of period performance and played the Air with supple grace.

Violinist Melissa Phelps and oboist Sarah Beck steeped onto the stage as soloists in Bach’s Concerto for Violin and Oboe. Phelps and Beck’s playing was perfectly poised; a seamless fusion of musical personalities. The elegant playing of both Phelps and Beck were a wonder here.

The combined artistry of flautist Salpy Kerkonian, violinist Yi-Huan Zhao, and guest pianist Natasha Marin had no problems bringing the red-blooded Bach to life. Marin’s muscular, golden tone and her handling of the first movement’s cadenza were breathtaking. Managing to balance pianistic flair with musical intelligence, Marin’s playing of the cadenza was at once a dazzling showstopper, but also integrated firmly into the texture of her partners’ voices. Yi-Huan Zhao’s creamy tone was, as always, a delight. The winsome playing of Salpy Kerkonian’s flute was a joy. Kerkonian was able to spin web after web of gossamer webs of music. After the work came to its close, the audience leaped to its feet in a much-deserved standing ovation. Rushing to the stage with a bouquet for Natasha Marin was her husband, actor and comedian Cheech Marin.

From the heart of Prussia, the SCO took the audience to the plains of Argentina’s Gran Chaco via Argentinean composer Alberto Williams First Suite for String Orchestra. Milonga and tango rhythms could be heard churning, but without the acidic bite that later Argentinean composers would bring to their native dance idioms. Indeed, the entire work seemed blissfully unaware of the chaos and upheavals of the 20th century. The vast expanse of the pampas unfolded before the listener in this charming and attractive work that sounded like it could have been the work of a South American Dvorak. Why is this music so little played? De Leon de Vega and the SCO deserve praise for bringing this work to light – doubly so when they played it as exquisitely as they did.

The turmoil and stress missing in the Williams work was brilliantly sublimated into the dazzling work that closed the program: Astor Piazzolla’s Libertango. A truly eclectic and original composer, Piazzolla was one of those rare musicians that refused to be pigeon-holed. He effortlessly strode the worlds of tango and classical music, informing each with the style of the other. Piazzolla’s Libertango fused the 20th century of Bartok and Stravinsky and channeled it through the greasy sound of his bandoneon (a type of concertina popular in Argentina and Uruguay). Here the uneasy dissonances and rhythmic complexities of modernity were heard. De Leon de Vega and
the SCO strings played the work with an almost visceral thrill. What a way to end the concert.

The SCO’s final concert of the season, entitled Mexico Sinfonico, will be held on May 22 at Occidental College’s Thorne Hall. For more information on the SCO visit their website at or call (323) 259-3011.

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