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Silicon Valley

Emil de Cou

September 30, 2006

Emil de Cou

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We Appreciate

Old Russia Meets New America

By David Bratman

Symphony Silicon Valley began its third season at the California Theatre in downtown San Jose on Saturday without any fanfare (other than the National Anthem). This was just a regular concert, but like many of their programs it was delightful and unusual, and at the same time a bit problematic.

The orchestra that runs without a music director brought in Emil de Cou to lead the musicians. Tall and lean, with a clear, straightforward beat, he spends much of his time conducting pops and ballet ensembles.

This week’s program consisted of a hefty chunk of crisp contemporary American lettuce between two slices of classic Russian black bread. Probably the idea was to reel in the audience with the soulful works of of Alexander Borodin and Peter Tchaikovsky, steeped in folk music, and make them stay for the jangly postmodernism of Jennifer Higdon featured in between. But Higdon is anything but a bristly or off-putting composer, and while contrast is good, sometimes it can be difficult to digest. Perhaps if the Russians had been matched with Charles Ives, or if Higdon had been preceded by a more angular, urbane Russian like Serge Prokofiev, the sequence would have flowed more smoothly.

Jarring contrasts

As it was, if you follow an old chestnut like Borodin’s In the Steppes of Central Asia with Higdon’s opening of strings swirling against bells and timpani, the new sound comes across as more strange and austere than the composer intended. It took until an earnest viola melody in the third movement of her massive Concerto for Orchestra for the memory of Borodin to fully wash away. Then Higdon’s composition, written in 2002 to showcase the Philadelphia Orchestra, emerged as the impressive work that it is. It’s been called the first masterpiece of the 21st century. That may not be much of an exaggeration; this was a fascinating listening experience.

Higdon excels at transitions, washing different timbres of the orchestra over each other, and melting one sound away to reveal another underneath, often a quite different one that seems inevitable for the circumstance. Alhough there’s enough music for the winds and brass, the concerto belongs to the strings and percussion. These are the sounds that begin the work and dominate it. Her string writing, despite its complexity, is unusually clean and shiny, a quality emphasized by the California Theatre’s bright and separating acoustics (at least up in the balcony where I sat). There were several concertante moments when the string section leaders intertwined in complex patterns against a simpler background. There, concertmaster Robin Mayforth, out much of last season with an injury, made a particularly welcome return.

The fourth of the concerto’s five movements is for percussion and keyboards, accompanied only by harp. It begins with the eerie, rarely heard sound of bowed percussion. By this time the audience was attuned to the work, and accepted the long percussion drill with attentiveness and good humor. San Jose may well be ready to hear Varese’s Ionisation, the all-time masterwork for percussion ensemble.

A style change, a crystalline interpretation

After intermission, memory of Higdon was, in turn, washed down by Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 2. Maestro de Cou brought a distinctive approach to both Russian works on the program. Borodin’s In the Steppes of Central Asia, written in commemoration of the imperial annexation of that region, sets two themes — one typically Russian and the other what the composer fondly imagined was Central Asian in character — together in harmonious combination. The performance was brisk, with an unusual sweetness even in the English horn solo. But it was impossible to tell from such a short piece what he was actually up to.

Tchaikovsky is not usually thought of as an ethnic nationalist, but this symphony is an exception, filled with Ukrainian folk melodies and themes based on them. The outer movements tend to be thick, sludgy, and a bit over-repetitious. The first movement went fairly well despite a few playing flubs. But the orchestra caught on in the second movement, a tiny march just as coy and charming as it could be, especially in the opening for clarinets and bassoons. At that point de Cou, the ballet conductor, made his approach clear and, in fact, crystalline: In his view this is not a heavy symphony but a work by the composer of The Nutcracker.

His clear beat and minor but sudden shifts of tempo elicited a crisp staccato tone and tight dynamic accents from the orchestra. The following scherzo was in a similar vein. Even the usually recalcitrant finale, with its unappealing and too often repeated main theme, succumbed completely to this approach. It flowed lightly all the way to the end. There's no need to make allowances for this being the orchestra's first concert after a summer away, after minimal rehearsals under a new conductor. The performance was a delight. No further reminders were necessary that this is the same ensemble that triumphed in Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique at the end of last season.

(David Bratman is a librarian who lives with his lawfully wedded soprano and a wall full of symphony recordings.)

©2006 David Bratman, all rights reserved