Symphony Silicon Valley: Past, Present, Near Perfect

David Bratman on September 30, 2013
Christoph Campestrini
Christoph Campestrini

Symphony Silicon Valley began its 12th season on Saturday, at the California Theatre in San José, without a gala or, really, without anything else to mark that it was a season-opener, other than the annual curtain-raiser of the national anthem. (I’d like to hear Stravinsky’s arrangement of that in this position sometime.)

Instead, this concert, without guest soloists but with many solos from within the orchestra, served to show off what the orchestra can do. The players must have been working hard over the summer, because there was no after-a-break flabbiness here. Christoph Campestrini, the Austrian guest conductor, took them straight into Glinka’s Ruslan and Ludmilla Overture, a piece that is always played with a tempo marking of “Too Fast,” to show how dashing the players can be. There was impressively little stumbling in this dynamic whir. The only lyrical theme was in the cellos. Playing with pointed accents, the cello section had here the first of many opportunities in this concert to display an advanced level of richness of tone and security of intonation that it has rarely achieved previously.

It was a bit daring of the program to evoke comparisons with the past by reviving this overture, a favorite piece of Leonid Grin, who directed the old San José Symphony in the 1990s. It was even more daring to make the main piece of the evening the Symphonie fantastique, by Berlioz, since a compellingly dramatic performance of this under Paul Polivnick, concluding the 2006 season, was one of the finest interpretations SSV has ever given. In both cases, the repertoire encourages a direct comparison between the orchestra’s present and its past.

The repertoire encourages a direct comparison between the orchestra’s present and its past.

Saturday’s Fantastique was also very good, just in a different way from the 2006 performance. Although Campestrini has done much opera work, his conducting here did not lean toward the dramatic. With his brush-cut appearance and a somewhat Schwarzenegger-like genial demeanor, plus a visually conspicuous habit of humming along with the music (fortunately inaudible, at least where I sat), he led a solid, secure performance that occupied vast tracts of musical landscape, spreading the symphony out until it felt as large as one by Mahler, and keeping any tendency to French fluttering firmly nailed to the ground.

A particularly distinct example of these came in the conclusion to the “Scene in the Country” third movement. After opening with a fine duet of Deborah Shidler’s offstage oboe and Patricia Emerson Mitchell’s onstage English horn, at the end the English horn alternates its shepherd’s theme with interruptions from four timpani (in the role of a thunderstorm). This performance was no distant echo occurring in pauses, as it’s often performed. Instead, the timpani were vivid and close-up. They and Mitchell took their turns in a good, orderly Germanic way.

Lines floating along and twisting together during the dreams and reveries of the first movement had a richness of sonority … that was most gratifying.

Much other good wind work was heard, notably a rare bit of cutting loose in the properly harrowing squeal of Michael Corner’s clarinet in the “Witches’ Sabbath” finale. The honor of the evening, however, belonged to the strings. Lines floating along and twisting together during the dreams and reveries of the first movement had a richness of sonority in all the sections that was most gratifying to hear from this orchestra.

Campestrini’s conducting style was less successful in the remaining work, the Lieutenant Kijé Suite, by Prokofiev. This is a quirky, deliberately awkward piece with offhanded military rigidity clattering around and falling over itself. It needs a light, clever hand on the baton. The stolidity of Campestrini’s approach gave the impression he didn’t see anything funny in the music, for all his genial smiles. It was far too close to being dull. I don’t believe I’ve previously heard a performance that included grand ritardandos at the ends of some of the movements, as if this were a work of heft instead of one of whimsy.

Some good playing was evident here, nevertheless, starting with principal trumpet James F. Dooley, who gave the nasal offstage cornet introduction. The sound was a little desiccated. There was only minimal opportunity for the strings to show their quality in this dry music. Unfortunately, not all of the fluffs and missed cues were those written into the score by the composer. By far the most fluid and comfortable solo work came from David Henderson in the lyrical passages on saxophone.