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October 4-10, 2006

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Emil de Cou

Grace and Authority: Guest conductor Emil de Cou led Symphony Silicon Valley last weekend.

American Sound

Symphony Silicon Valley earns cheers for Jennifer Higdon's Concerto for Orchestra

By Scott MacClelland

EMIL DE COU, guest conductor for Symphony Silicon Valley, told his Sunday matinee audience that Jennifer Higdon's Concerto for Orchestra is among "the most important works of the last 20 years." He then went on to conduct the acclaimed 2002 symphonic showpiece, commissioned and premiered by the Philadelphia Orchestra, to cheers all around. What the work lacks in Big Tunes it more than makes up in rhythmic vitality, instrumental imagination and all around flattery of the orchestra's musicians. Moreover, it has an American sound. No wonder it is getting played all across the land; Marin Alsop did it at the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music in 2004.

With glimpses of the tonal rhetoric associated with the music schools of Baltimore, Boston and Rochester, Higdon makes ample use of the octotonic diminished scale, the currently fashionable alternative to Schoenbergian serialism that gives nontonal music a lovely, even palatable patina. If de Cou's performance had less impact than Alsop's at Cabrillo, it was due to his rhythmically less incisive podium technique, his "mushy" stick work, as one of the players described it. Nevertheless, the orchestra delivered at its best, its endless variety of cameos standing clear, with credit due not least to the conductor. In a five-movement score rich in detail, some of the standouts were the string steeplechase of the second movement, the string glissandi of the third, and the wittily entertaining percussion show of the fourth.

De Cou comes with illustrious credentials, having led most of the best orchestras in the United States and many in Europe. He adorns the podium gracefully and conducts with authority, although his interpretation of familiar fare shows little evidence of an individual stamp. This was apparent in Tchaikovsky's Symphony no. 2 in C Minor (Little Russian), where picking up both pace and dynamics proved to be de Cou's most consistent and ultimately predictable fingerprint. Such was the case in the first movement where the andante gives way to allegro, and with comparable changes of tempo in the other movements. Tchaikovsky makes more hay with folk songs in this piece—and a wedding march lifted from his destroyed opera Undine for its second movement—than in any other of his symphonies, but generally defers to rhythmic trickery (like 2/8 in the trio of the scherzo) and orchestral decoration over thematic development. (The finale's opening suggests a fugue but it never gets more than glitzy, often frivolous variations.) The string tone in the opening movement was glorious, but their ensemble later on hit some scratchy patches.

De Cou opened his program with Borodin's In the Steppes of Central Asia, a short symphonic poem that shows off the composer's amazing gifts for postcard melodies, especially of a Persian or Islamic flavor. As turned out to be his "signature," de Cou's points of tempo and dynamic change left the most memorable impressions of his work right from the start.

Now in its fifth season, Symphony Silicon Valley has grown carefully and wisely under board president—executive director in practical fact—Andrew Bales. Four of the seven subscription programs for 2006-07 include a third performance, on the Thursday evening before the otherwise traditional weekend pair, starting later this month when Gary Hoffman will solo in Shostakovich's great Cello Concerto no. 1 in E flat. Guest conductor is Martin West, new music director and principal conductor of the San Francisco Ballet.

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