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BATON MAN: Paul Polivnick led Symphony Silicon Valley over the weekend.

Woody Wonders

Symphony Silicon Valley premieres David Amram's marvelous 'Symphonic Variations on a Song by Woody Guthrie'.

By Scott MacClelland

IN THE FALL of 2005, Symphony Silicon Valley revived what is arguably David Amram's best work, the extravagantly orchestrated Triple Concerto for Wind, Brass and Jazz Quintets and Orchestra. The performances that year were stunners, kaleidoscopic in color, riotous with invention, often dense in textures. They also proved Amram's remarkable success at reconciling jazz with classical in one keenly communicative piece.

Amram, the American musical polymath who turns 72 next month, was the star at Symphony Silicon Valley's season-opener last weekend. The world premiere of his new Symphonic Variations on a Song by Woody Guthrie was the serendipitous fallout of an offhand conversation between Amram and Andrew Bales, president of the symphony. The two had been in the planning stages of a new premiere for the 2008–2009 season when the composer mentioned his Guthrie project. Bales wondered who was scheduled to premiere it. In that moment, Amram found himself in the enviable position—for a composer—of giving birth to two world premieres in two consecutive seasons, happily, for us, right here in Silicon Valley. (Bales promised that next year's premiere would be "very big," but declined to say more. Scuttle has it that pianist Jon Nakamatsu is involved.)

In his half-hour variations, Amram wisely chose to write original tunes for each of the pictorial episodes from Guthrie's life, with "This Land Is Your Land" as the recurring theme, sometimes masked but never far from sight. Commissioned by Woody Guthrie Publications, the work's first variation becomes a Cherokee stomp dance from Oklahoma, followed by a church service with bells. A Texas barn dance gives way to Sońando con Mexico, portraying Mexican workers with whom Guthrie toiled. Dust Bowl Dirge, for strings only, plays on Guthrie's "So Long, It's Been Good to Know Ya," while the final variation is a miniature New York dance suite of Caribbean, klezmer and "Block Party" set against a Salvation Army hymn based on "This Land." The music ran an eclectic gamut, from delicate to robust, from percussion alone to Celtic scales, with prominent solos on violin, tuba and clarinet, and lush Biblical film textures a la Miklós Rózsa. Programmatic and colorful, it makes a worthy addition to musical Americana and, on Sunday afternoon, enjoyed precision playing under the expert leadership of guest conductor Paul Polivnick.

The program opened with Beethoven's Symphony no. 6 (Pastoral), which proved once again the quality of playing by the orchestra and the highly detailed sonic imagery found within the California Theatre's superior acoustics. But the handsome reading by the players belied Polivnick's own lack of emotional engagement with the piece. The conductor is a lens through which is projected his or her ideas and feelings about the music. With Polivnick, the ideas are clear, but there seems to be no passion driving them. Likewise Janácek Sinfonietta, thinly disguised Slavonic dances that blazed with brass but whose finale was paced too fast for the delicious details to sound out and the grandeur to fully take hold.

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