California Theatre
The California Theatre is home to Symphony San José | Credit: Robert Shomler

Symphony San José held a connoisseur’s concert on Saturday, Dec. 3. Frequent guest conductor JoAnn Falletta led the orchestra in Antonín Dvořák’s Symphony No. 7 in D Minor, a dark piece often considered his deepest and most profound work in the form; Édouard Lalo’s Cello Concerto, also in D Minor, an attractive major work that mysteriously is not often performed; and the even more rarely heard Danzas fantásticas by Joaquín Turina. The cost of putting on such a program devoid of the popular crowd-pleaser usual in the Symphony’s concerts was that the California Theatre was distinctly less than full.

The audience that was there, however, heard a fine program. Under Falletta’s direction, the orchestra offered a sweeping, coherent rendition of Dvořák’s large-scale work. Exposed passages for all the string sections showed each thoroughly in command of the music. Particularly in the Poco adagio slow movement, the phrasing and tempo fluctuations were finely judged and unerringly executed. A similar effect emerged in the Finale, where Falletta imbued the quiet passages in the development section with a slow, wandering quality that expanded the emotional journey of the work.

JoAnn Falletta
JoAnn Falletta | Credit: Steve J. Sherman

The rest of the piece was also full of character touches. The Scherzo lightly floated through the air, minimizing the abruptness of the Czech dance rhythms. In the first movement, some passages flirted with a charming roughness, as if various instruments and sections were contesting for the right to be on top of the rush of sound. As a whole, Symphony San José’s performance made the case for the Seventh as a Dvořák symphony worth all the attention available to give it.

Turina’s Danzas fantásticas is a brief suite embedding various Spanish dance rhythms in a hothouse atmosphere reminiscent of Maurice Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé or various works of Claude Debussy. The musicians played this with the same intensity and vigor that they brought to the Dvořák. That few of them could ever have played it before did not stand in the way of a polished performance delivered with complete assurance. The piece included a fair number of the orchestra’s less frequently heard instruments, including harp and — most effectively, in a foghorn role — contrabassoon, which were carted offstage after the piece ended.

Julian Schwarz
Julian Schwarz

The Lalo concerto came out somewhat differently. The orchestra sounded as if Falletta were holding it back somewhat to give more space for soloist Julian Schwarz. Schwarz is an accomplished cellist, clear and precise in his playing, commanding a variety of tones from low and rough to high and smooth. Though loud enough to be easily heard, he played without the last degree of emphasis and intensity encouraged by Lalo’s bold, almost brusque writing style. Both from soloist and orchestra, this was a performance more contemplative than declarative.

Lalo, though born and raised in northern France, had Spanish ancestry, and much of his music, including the Cello Concerto, bears Spanish influence. (His most famous work is, of course, the Symphonie espagnole for violin and orchestra.) Thus, the concerto and the Spanish dances by Turina bore ethnic kinship to Schwarz’s encore, the Jota — another Spanish dance — from the Suite for Solo Cello by another Spanish composer, Gaspar Cassadó. This piece included extensive samples of another characteristically Spanish sound, strumming of the strings in the manner of a guitar. That brings up one more connection, for, as Schwarz pointed out introducing the piece, Falletta began her career as an orchestral guitar player.

That reference nicely wrapped up a concert that was not too predictable yet not too obscure and that nicely packaged the quality of the orchestral playing now being presented in San José.