Among the pleasures to be savored in the latest installment of the Santa Barbara Symphony’s brave current season were sweet washes of Black cultural life mattering, a hoedown-tinged homecoming, and incidental virtues of COVID-timed performance practices. The latter two aspects arrived courtesy of guest violin soloist Gilles Apap, demonstrating his organic versatility by switch-hitting from Mozart — the “Turkish” Violin Concerto — to Apap’s well-established, cross-genre palette of bluegrass, Irish music, “gypsy jazz,” and more.
The wily, local-global virtuoso has strong Santa Barbara roots, having lived here (before moving to the big city of Arroyo Grande) and serving as this orchestra’s concertmaster before worldly fame and travels transformed him into a nomad. As it happened, the necessarily empty house at the Granada Theater left Apap — untethered from the traditional soloist’s stage front-and-center perch — free to roam about the stage and among the musicians he clearly has an alliance with.
That free, roaming spirit counteracted the innate stress of pandemic performance mandates and was also reflected in the free-roaming idioms of Apap’s expanded Mozart cadenza and a post-intermission mashup of short pieces. As expected, Apap put forth fluid expressiveness and lively engagement with his instrument and the hosting ensemble, right through to the improvised riffs on the finale, “Fiddlin’ Around,” by jazz violinist/fiddler Johnny Gimble.
As for the Black culture component, maestro Nir Kabaretti opened the concert with an elegant read of the compact, genteel classical-era Symphony No. 1 of Joseph Boulogne (a k a Chevalier de Saint-Georges), an 18th-century sensation as a violinist and composer — and a champion fencer. A rare, publicly embraced composer of African descent, Boulogne has been gaining overdue attention of late, a sphere now including the 805.
More generally, SBS once again deserves kudos for boldly going forth into live concertizing amid a supremely challenging time for music in the live arena.