Symphony Orchestra 2.0

David Bratman on July 1, 2008
San José, as its boosters like to point out, is now the largest city in Northern California. But if it’s the leader in population, it has a ways to go to catch up to San Francisco in cultural influence. Still, San José is far from the cultural desert that its flat sprawling landscape might suggest to residents of hillier, more congested parts of the Bay Area. The lively downtown has a flavor to it that you could find, perhaps to your equal surprise, in places like Sacramento and Santa Rosa. And there are musical performances well worth hearing here, enough to enthuse the locals and perhaps even draw audiences from outside the city and its suburbs. San José’s leading concert ensemble is Symphony Silicon Valley. Born in 2002 out of the ashes of the old San José Symphony (see a story recounted by SFCV here), it has grown cautiously over the years, with surprising and gratifying success. The orchestra was artistically mature from the beginning, drawing most of its personnel from its predecessor. Where SSV has really grown is in scheduling. For its first year only four concerts were held, scheduled individually only a few weeks in advance. When a full season came, in 2004-2005, it consisted of seven programs in two performances each. These were successful and popular enough that in 2006-2007, four Thursday performances were added to the seven Saturday evenings and Sunday matinees schedule. Attendance has continued to rise, and demand for two of this year’s concerts — one featuring Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, the other an all-Gershwin program — was so great that fourth performances, on Fridays, were added. The Symphony has not let this success go to its head, however. It is not a full-time orchestra and is not trying to expand beyond its capacity. The 2008-2009 season comprises eight programs, the same number as this year, four in three performances and four in two. Whether or not extra performances are added this season, there is a real audience for local symphony concerts in San José, and the 1,100-seat California Theatre, with its grand 1920s-period foyer and auditorium, and its bright, lively acoustics, makes a perfect venue. SSV has taken to presenting short, chamber-music preview concerts before its Thursday performances, and holds a number of special events, including holiday carol concerts and summer family concerts. In 2006 the symphony gave a special concert of video game music (accompanied by visual effects) — this is Silicon Valley, after all — but the experiment has not been repeated.

Elena Sharkova directs the SSV Chorale; Vance George guest conducts next year

This May, the SSV Chorale, conducted by Elena Sharkova, came out from behind the orchestra to perform Rachmaninov’s a cappella Vespers at the Santa Clara Mission and at Santa Cruz’s Holy Cross Church. On March 15 of next year, the Chorale is bringing in retired San Francisco Symphony Chorus Director Vance George to lead Fauré’s Requiem.

No Music Director? No Problem

SSV has become locally famous, almost notorious, as an orchestra without a music director. Circumstances at first did not allow for the hiring of one — concerts in the first two seasons were infrequent and there were budgetary concerns as well as worries about putting the orchestra’s fate in one pair of conductorial hands. Perhaps surprisingly, the orchestra has just gone on that way. This is not an entirely uncontroversial policy. But the symphony has developed a corporate personality, embodied by its president, Andrew Bales. Bales comes out on stage to give a short speech of welcome before every concert, so he’s become familiar to the audience. As CEO of the orchestra, he appears to be doing a remarkable job of giving equal attention to administrative, financial, and artistic matters. And in the process, San José has come to hear the work of a lot of more interesting guest conductors than most orchestras its size would have. Not all are successful, but the winners often return in later years.
Andrew Bales

Photo by Robert Shomler

One particular slant SSV has taken has been an interest in mid-20th-century American vernacular music. The orchestra seized on this repertoire with gusto in their first concert in the California Theatre in 2004 (reviewed here). They celebrated the completion of the restoration of the building, which originally opened in 1927 as a grand film and stage theater, by putting on a show of American film and stage music of the era. Works by Gershwin, Copland, and Erich Wolfgang Korngold were conducted with panache by the late Sergiu Comissiona, while a theater usher wearing a period uniform changed a signboard on stage before each piece.
Gwendolyn Mok
This programming trend has continued, most obviously this May when the orchestra offered a pops program called “George Gershwin’s 1920s Radio Hour,” devised by pianist Gwendolyn Mok. Paul Polivnick conducted. Mok played both the Concerto in F and Rhapsody in Blue, the latter in the original Paul Whiteman jazz band instrumentation; Broadway star Sara Uriarte Berry belted out some Gershwin show tunes; and the pseudo-radio narration, including some comical commercials for a laxative chewing gum, was delivered cheerfully by KDFC radio announcer Hoyt Smith. If the playing was less than SSV’s most incisive, as a show it was great fun.
Paul Polivnick
But there’s been more. Polivnick was also on the podium in October 2005 for a jazz-classical fusion program consisting of Gershwin’s An American in Paris, Duke Ellington’s Black, Brown & Beige, and David Amram’s Triple Concerto. The concert’s success sparked a commission from the orchestra to Amram — if Gershwin and Ellington were still with us, they’d probably have been contacted too — from which emerged a work titled Symphonic Variations on a Song by Woody Guthrie, which received its premiere in the first concert of this season last September. Polivnick was on the podium again. Amram didn’t simply orchestrate “This Land Is Your Land,” run a few thuddy variations on it, and leave it at that. Instead, he produced a large suite of colorful and varied Americana through which the song, often mutated nearly unrecognizably, recurs in unexpected forms. Now Amram, though in his late seventies, has been recommissioned, and next January 15-18, SSV audiences will hear the premiere of his Piano Concerto No. 1, played by the local favorite Jon Nakamatsu, the former high school teacher from Mountain View who won the Van Cliburn Competition 11 years ago. Paul Polivnick conducts again.

Music Appreciation With Flair

The orchestra’s final concert this year was another special program borrowing, this one from the Chicago Symphony’s “Beyond the Score” series. This scheme provides an elaborate preconcert lecture in the first half about the work being given in the second half, which in this case was Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. The narrators talked us through the Rite as an anthropological re-creation of a hypothesized, ancient Russian ritual, though not a word was said about it as a ballet or on the remarkable effect of Stravinsky’s new musical vocabulary. Musical illustrations were provided by period field recordings, by a third presenter who played Russian folk instruments, and by the orchestra, seated patiently behind the presenters. After intermission, Martin West led a rendition of the full work that, though light and chipper, was illuminated by the lesson. Next season, on December 6-7, SSV is going “Beyond the Score” again, this time with Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4. It will be interesting to compare this program with Michael Tilson Thomas' “Keeping Score” program on the same work. SSV performs more conventional concerts, as well. Nothing is more classic than Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, which the Symphony performed in March. Under Fabio Mechetti they delivered a basic, straightforward, but captivating rendition of the work. SSV is an inconsistent orchestra. Sometimes the horns, for instance, are having an off night, but other times they can be the stars of the stage. Sometimes the performances can be dull or wayward, but other times the music comes together excellently. Much depends on the individual conductor. Some critics and others have argued that the appointment of a music director would give the orchestra steadier leadership and keep its performances more even. This could be true, but the artistic waywardness of the last years of the San José Symphony offers a lesson in the risks of appointing the wrong music director. If artistic leadership from the front office remains strong enough, and the financial situation continues to be healthy, this peculiar situation may be stable for some time to come.
Scott Bearden
Beethoven’s Ninth was one of the Symphony’s better interpretations, but the evening's highlight was the clear and powerful tone of Opera San José’s lead baritone, Scott Bearden, in the “Ode to Joy.” Bearden has been thrilling audiences in local opera productions for a long time now, in Falstaff, I Pagliacci, The Barber of Seville, and many others. Opera San José, which also performs in the California Theatre, is something of a workshop company for young performers, but every workshop group needs its strong experienced hands as well, and Bearden, who just received the first place award and the audience favorite award in the second annual Irene Dalis Vocal Competition, has been filling that role here.
George Cleve
Next year’s eight regular concerts will include return visits from conductors Polivnick and George Cleve, who will each lead two concerts, and Leslie Dunner and Gregory Vajda, with one each. Cleve will be giving solid 19th-century programs, with composers from Beethoven to Debussy, featuring two solo violinists: Ju-Young Baek, a favorite on previous visits, in the Brahms concerto on Mar. 26-29, and the orchestra’s own associate concertmaster, Christina Mok, in the Mendelssohn on Oct. 16-19. Dunner takes charge of another Duke Ellington opus, The River Suite, which will be paired with dance music by Prokofiev and Ginastera. Two new conductors will appear: Paul Haas, who will lead Felix Guilmant’s Organ Symphony No. 1 and Schubert’s Ninth Symphony in C Major on March 14-15, and Jane Glover, who will direct the orchestra and chorale in Haydn’s Lord Nelson Mass on June 6-7. So San José’s ship sails on captainless for another season, taking in classic symphonies, concertos, and choral works; some 20th-century works both well- and little-known; one premiere; and another “Beyond the Score” lecture. It may be another inconsistent season, but at the very least it sounds interesting, and there are sure to be some winning concerts.

More Concerts in the South Bay

SSV is far from the only orchestra in the San José area. Even leaving aside student and nonprofessional groups — notably the scrappy and hard-working Redwood Symphony up the Peninsula — there’s the Fremont Symphony just to the north, and Santa Cruz County Symphony for listeners who care to go over the hill. Also in town is the San José Chamber Orchestra, which last month won an Adventurous Programming award from ASCAP, the performance rights group, and the League of American Orchestras. Their concerts next season will feature living composers such as Mimi Dye, James Harvestus, and Hyo-shin Na next to Haydn, Mendelssohn, and Tchaikovsky.

The St. Lawrence and Kronos quartets

In chamber music, the region is also well-blessed. Stanford Lively Arts is a prestigious local presenter that features ensembles such as the St. Lawrence and Kronos quartets. Nearby is the world-renowned [email protected] Festival. The Sunset Concerts at St. Luke’s Church in Los Gatos, and [email protected] at the St. Joseph Basilica in downtown San José, which repeats as Music at the Mission in Fremont, are notable small annual programs. In San José itself, the hidden treasure is the San José Chamber Music Society, which presents concerts at Le Petit Trianon, a tiny but acoustically excellent auditorium just north of San José’s city hall. The staff of the Society are all volunteers, but they manage to entice a surprising number of excellent ensembles to make a stop in San José. Many of these also perform in San Francisco or elsewhere in the area, but sometimes they save their best work for us.
Beaux Arts Trio
Two concerts in this past season demonstrate the point. The Beaux Arts Trio, on its farewell tour in April, gave Schubert and Dvořák at Herbst Theatre in San Francisco see review. But on the same tour, they played both the Schubert Trios, Op. 99 and Op. 100, in San José, a rare pairing of two blissful, enchanting works. ([email protected] is doing them together this year as a special concert.) The tiny gossamer notes chirped out by violinist Daniel Hope might not have been heard in any larger hall. The TinAlley String Quartet, fresh from winning the triennial Banff International String Quartet Competition, played a free concert of Haydn, Mendelssohn, and Berg in San Francisco in early March. But when at the end of the month they appeared in San José, they substituted for Berg the Bartók Quartet No. 4, which was the highlight of the program, a lucid, engaging rendition that outclassed their work with the older composers, and which was the best performance of a Bartók Quartet that I’ve ever been fortunate to hear. The upcoming season’s San José Chamber Music Society schedule includes the Escher String Quartet, a notable group at last year’s [email protected] festival that is returning there this year, as well as the Afiara Quartet, the Leipzig and Daedalus quartets, the Poulenc Trio, and the Trio con Brio Copenhagen. It looks fair set to be another good year for music in San José. You should come on down.

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