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All-Out Success

April 30, 2005

Richard Todd

Patrick Flynn

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We Appreciate

By David Bratman

When Symphony Silicon Valley's scheduled guest conductor for last weekend, Lan Shui, withdrew to take paternity leave, the Symphony was lucky enough to get Patrick Flynn to take his place. Flynn, who wowed the San Jose audience last October with his Tchaikovsky Fifth, took control of a muscular program of Beethoven and Richard Strauss at the California Theatre on Friday as if he had chosen the works himself. This was a concert for which conductor, orchestra, and soloist alike gave their best shot. Good as the performance was, they get even higher grades for effort.

Strauss's earliest period as a composer is perhaps unknown to many listeners. Before he was seduced by the Wagnerian side of the force in his early twenties, the young prodigy was the rising hope of a school of severe classicists led by his father, Franz, a querulous horn player who loathed Wagner's music though he performed it beautifully. Unsurprisingly, the dutiful Richard produced a horn concerto for his father in a fresh, clean, but severe post-classical style. Though completed in 1883, it harks back forty years or more to Schumann in orchestration, Mendelssohn in some harmonies, and a bit of Beethoven in the rhythms. (It's called Horn Concerto No. 1 because Strauss wrote a second one sixty years later in the neoclassical style he rediscovered at the end of his life.) The young composer was only 18, but his writing in the solo part was deemed too difficult, and Franz never played it.

It wasn't too difficult for Richard Todd. The principal hornist for the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra strode onstage as if nothing much were being asked of him and proceeded to perform in an easy, nonchalant manner. The French horn is probably the most difficult orchestral instrument (oboists might dispute this), requiring tremendous quantities of breath and great control over it. For this reason all horn concertos are very short and have a lot of rests in the solo part. Todd sounded as if he could have gone on rather longer (as in fact he did by playing an encore). In the concerto his attacks on high notes sometimes wobbled a bit, and he fluffed a big one in the slow movement, but he carried on unflinchingly and gave a generally eloquent performance. The rich, fat sound he brought especially to the low notes left no doubt of his capacity to shine as a soloist. If one were so minded, one might compare his horn tone with the voice of Nat King Cole. The comparison evidently hasn't escaped Todd himself, for in addition to concert and film work he's also a jazz virtuoso, and his encore was a smooth light-jazz rendition of the song “Nature Boy” which Cole's recording made famous.

A bold arrival

There are small hints in the concerto of the Richard Strauss who was to come, but the Strauss we know better made his debut with a bang at the age of 25 with the tone poem Don Juan. Roughly speaking, it's in free rondo form. Two bold, striving Don Juan themes (one of them, the “nobility,” first appearing halfway through, is played by massed horns) alternate with softer, lyrical episodes representing his serial love affairs. Though less famous than the recurring themes, the love episodes are key to the work. Flynn's proper emphasis on them gave Don Juan so much contrast in mood that it came across like a 15-minute condensation of a Wagnerian opera. Juan's themes were lively and quirky, with no attempt to be overwhelmingly grand; the romance themes were gentle and unusually legato, especially the lovely solo oboe “Donna Anna” theme. These segments stood out as discrete episodes: the listener could almost forget, as no doubt Don Juan did himself, that soon we would be hurtling on to a new lover.

Strauss was a master orchestrator who challenged all the players up to the limits of their instruments, and one could hear the orchestra meeting this challenge. Flynn's somewhat impressionistic, baton-less conducting did lead to a few rough entrances, but he has great control over orchestral balance, and throughout the expansive performance he passed the aural equivalent of a spotlight over the various instruments for a moment each: clarinet here, violas there.

Like Don Juan, Beethoven's “Eroica” Symphony has a notable theme for massed horns: in this case the trio theme of the third movement. Though this symphony was a breakthrough work, changing the nature of the form once other composers had grasped Beethoven's new style (beginning with Schubert's “Unfinished” some eighteen years later), and though it remains one of the core works of the repertoire, the “Eroica” is curiously unyielding in performance, often coming across like an intractable block of granite.

Maestro Flynn tried to crack that block. He is firmly of the school that believes Beethoven meant what he said when he wrote those fast metronome marks. But no matter how fast you play it and it could have been even faster the “Eroica” does not condense as the Seventh can, even if you omit the first-movement exposition repeat as was done here. It's still a huge monolith in any performance, though the special effort brought by both conductor and orchestra helped: a raw, clean sound, aided by the bright acoustics of the California Theatre; judicious control over the aural spotlight and dynamics, as in an astonishingly well-judged string crescendo near the end of the first movement exposition; and careful tiny fluctuations of tempo, especially notable at the end of the finale.

We'd had Richard Todd's encore after his concerto; unusually for a home orchestra concert, there was an orchestral encore at the end of the evening as well. The galumphing main theme and sudden soft responses in Brahms's Hungarian Dance No. 5 are perfectly suited to show off Flynn's ability to separate moods even if they only last a few bars. The audience began by clapping along, but soon ceased: part of this characterization is expressed through tempo, so Flynn doesn't conduct constant-beat dance music even if the composer calls the work a dance. But the audience's enthusiasm did reflect a growing feeling that Maestro Flynn is a favorite guest conductor in San Jose. He'll be back next season and we look forward to hearing his work again.

(David Bratman, librarian, lives with his lawfully-wedded soprano and a wallful of symphony recordings.)

©2005 David Bratman, all rights reserved