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Dance to the Music

September 30, 2008

The California Theater looked sparkling and effervescent both inside and out on the opening night of Symphony Silicon Valley's 2008-2009 season. The program, "Dances at an Opening," featured three multimovement dance-inspired and dance-related works by Alberto Ginastera, Duke Ellington, and Sergei Prokofiev. The theater, with its Gothic facade and Jazz Age marquee and decor, provided a charmed contrast from the gray concrete of downtown San Jose. That charm, captured on the beautifully decorated walls and high ceilings of the edifice itself, vibrated in tandem with that of the seasoned concertgoers who occupied the hall on Saturday's opening night, and the atmosphere of a ceremonial gathering was suggested, if not implied.
Consisting of about 70 local professional and semiprofessional players, SSV is modest in both its size and capacity. First-night jitters, or perhaps the ensemble's relatively slow warming-up to guest conductor Leslie Dunner, resulted in several unsure and unclear moments in its performance throughout the evening. Passages of rich, luxurious string work were sometimes met with flat, unsupportive playing from the brass section. Likewise, once the ball got rolling during moments of drama or excitement, the strings either attempted to match the stride of their counterparts in the lower end of the orchestra, or tried feverishly to get out of their way.

Nevertheless, Dunner led the orchestra with strength and exuberance, and the vivacity that pulsated from the podium spread infectiously throughout the audience. The last selection from Ginastera's ballet Estancia (1943), a piece titled "Danza final (Malambo)," is a spirited romp on the Argentinean ranch of the composer's imagination. The orchestra not only re-created the dancing frenzy being kicked up by proud gauchos, engaged in proving their machismo before the eyes of eager onlookers, but they actually became the dancers themselves, with unexpected moments of stomping, hooting, and hollering that brought an appreciative chuckle from the crowd. Unfortunately, the players on the stage sometimes missed the conductor's cues and directions, and, at times, the saltant fervor created by those imagined bodies-in-motion in the music were stopped short by the performance's unrestraint.

In an ironic turn, Ellington's work The River (1970), the second dance suite to be featured in the evening's program, was played by the ensemble with noticeable restraint when a large element in Ellington's writing is a loose swing. In "Meander," the second piece within the set, Dunner and his musicians finally came together as one and did, indeed, meander like cool water flowing through a wistful bucolic setting, or perhaps even like a sleepless Harlemite down the lit midnight streets of Lenox Avenue, circa 1950.

The brass-heavy waltz "Giggling Rapids" featured a section that seemed a bit too unsure of its own identity; Ellington's use of the glockenspiel, woodwinds, and strings to articulate the shimmery three-note melody means that the contrapuntal lines left to the brass should push and pull like a strong undercurrent. Although the orchestra at large was not without charm during this number, they, like the brass, did appear reluctant to swing.
Courting Versatility
After intermission, Dunner led the ensemble through selections from Prokofiev's ballet Romeo and Juliet (1935/1940), which the Mark Morris Dance Group was performing in Berkeley (see review), in a new version, also last weekend. His gesticulations strong and emphatic, conductor and ensemble effectively transmitted to the hall the mortal drama of the opening bars of the first movement, "The Montagues and Capulets." Resonating with a seriousness that, up until that point, was unprecedented in the evening's program, Symphony Silicon Valley demonstrated its intended versatility to the audience.

It's no easy task to play composers as diverse as Ginastera, Ellington, and Prokofiev in the same concert and not have the simple, obvious commonality between the individual works stick out sorely as a gimmick. Instead, Symphony Silicon Valley moved through each of the suites, maintaining its dignity and also not taking its audience for granted. A remarkable example of this was "Romeo at the Grave of Juliet" — one of the high points of the evening — where the lover's grief and despair found his voice in the ensemble's sensitive attention to dynamic contrast and orchestral color.

On Saturday night Symphony Silicon Valley provided to its audience what perhaps only the most fortunate metropolises have: an orchestra that serves its public brilliantly, by presenting it with engaging, memorable musical experiences. That Silicon Valley itself is grateful toward the Symphony is quite clear: During an encore performance of Ginastera's "Danza final (Malambo)," the loudest stomps, hoots, and hollers this time came from the audience.

Kwami Coleman is a Ph.D. student in musicology at Stanford, with a concentration in jazz history. He was formerly an artist's liaison with Jazz at Lincoln Center.