Silicon Valley Music Festival Fascinates and Charms

David Bratman on June 30, 2014

The Silicon Valley Music Festival, a week of chamber concerts in the South Bay, is now in its third season, and it’s acquired some desirable accoutrements: an attractive program book and a set of venues concentrated in downtown San Jose.

The music hasn’t had to get much better because it was already quite good. This festival invites soloists who aren’t that well known, yet who are impressively talented, and displays them in imaginative repertoire.

This year’s theme was “A Festival of Folk.” Covering the influence of folk music on classical is a tall order, especially when the American experience is tucked into just one concert, Friday’s at Le Petit Trianon. The program was chosen to focus on the basic Europeanized conception of the American national character by anchoring itself with two well-deserving classics, Dvořák’s “American” Quartet and Copland’s Appalachian Spring.

The Dvořák work, his String Quartet in F, Op. 96, was performed by four women with an interesting assortment of performing styles. Dark, firm heavy playing from violist Yoon-Kyung Shin, echoed by second violinist Salley Koo, made for an unusual combination with the light and airy cello of Saeunn Thorsteinsdottir, especially with the intermittently metallic sheen of first violinist Yeon-Su Kim added. Their quick traversal through the quartet — no exposition repeat — was firmly rhythmic and thoroughly charming. The second movement Lento was the heart of their performance, and the movement in which they most convinced the listener that every note counts. Digging into its rocking melody and accompaniment with eloquence, they rendered its slow 6/8 beat as a gracious waltz that could have conquered a Viennese ballroom.

Thirteen players — nine strings, three winds, and a pianist — crowded themselves on the stage for the Copland. This, too, was a charming and vigorous performance. Some swallowed notes and hesitancies did not get in the way of the action. The strings were at their best in the slower passages, playing chords of rich flavor. That emphasis led to a surprise when the cellos got hold of the “Simple Gifts” melody and rendered it with the gusto appropriate to a sea shanty.

The strong stand-out performances belonged to the winds. Flutist Ray Furuta (the festival’s artistic director) and bassoonist Carolyn Lockhart were strong enough, while the clarinet of Ayako Oshima was so forward and powerful that it walked away with the whole work. Though the spirit was sober rather than wild, it was completely unabashed. The prominence of the winds changed the sound balance of the entire ensemble, giving tutti sections a distinctly brash sound.

Someone had the brilliant idea of following Appalachian Spring immediately — without a break, just a pause long enough for some of the string players to shuffle aside far enough to allow pianist Michelle Cann to be seen — with William Grant Still’s short piano piece Summerland. It both reflected and differed from Copland’s quiet conclusion. Cann turned from the percussive and chord-holding role she’d been playing in Appalachian Spring to the late Romantic quietude of Still’s piece with fair brilliance. Her sensitive feel for note values took the music to the place where romanticism touches the edge of early jazz. She captured Still’s compositional spirit better than any other version of this piece I’ve heard.

Someone had the brilliant idea of following Appalachian Spring with William Grant Still’s short piano piece Summerland ... Pianist Michelle Cann captured Still’s compositional spirit better than any other version of this piece I’ve heard.

The program was rounded out with a recent song cycle, SeaSkye Songs by Eric Ewazen, performed by soprano Malida Haslett accompanied by a mixed ensemble. Though this work was chosen to reflect the songs that European immigrants brought to America, the cycle, while pleasant and attractive, isn’t actually very folk-song like. Nor — despite Ewazen’s stated inspiration — did it sound more than occasionally and slightly Scottish.

Haslett’s strong voice soared with confidence, and with a few impressive sustained notes, over the instruments. The Trianon’s warm, resonant acoustics, though excellent for giving coherence to a diverse string quartet, are by the same token not the best to transmit clear enunciation from singers, and, without any lyrics in the program book, it was hard to make out what she was saying.

To hear Haslett to best effect, it turned out to be a good idea to attend Saturday’s closing concert at ZERO1 Garage, a small ex-industrial space down in the arts district (yes, San Jose has one). Haslett sang two large postmodern song cycles, each of international bent in a variety of languages, and each accompanied by large instrumental ensemble: Luciano Berio’s Folk Songs and Osvaldo Golijov’s Ayre. They were preceded by a pair of gently lyrical instrumental pieces, lively from Alberto Ginastera and extremely quiet from Toshio Hosokawa.

Throughout both cycles, Haslett sang with clearly audible diction, whatever the language, with strong vocal expression of character, and with humor and charm. Berio’s simple and straightforward settings, with light and detached accompaniment, were attractively performed. Golijov’s piece, composed a decade ago as a companion to Berio’s, amplified this up, and not just in its discreet use of electronics. It was an astonishing, mesmerizing work. The 11 songs ranged from quiet heartbreaking beauty through diminished-harmony laments to electro-klezmer beat to raucous and whiny. Haslett spoke lyrics, she sang purely, she sang nasally, she put on an unresonant whine, she did a lot of things.

The instrumentation was equally creative: a beautiful melody in the weird and unstable sound of double bass playing in its highest register (Scott Padden, showing impressive control of his instrument), a lament for the arresting duo of cello and French horn, a rumble for a saxophone which Oshima, usually playing clarinet, seemingly pulled out of her pocket. The final song, a vocalise made up for the ensemble as Arab street music, was magical. It went on and on in blissful stasis, and it could have gone on much longer with no loss of concentration or of pleasure.

The Silicon Valley Music Festival ought to go on longer, too. A winter festival is being planned for early next year, and what next summer brings to San Jose should be fascinating as well.