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[whitespace] Finding The Pulse

The SC Symphony delights audience while adjusting to new acoustics

By Scott MacClelland

IF AUDIENCE TURNOUT is a reliable indicator, it seems the Santa Cruz Symphony has found the pulse of the community. Saturday night, a virtually soldout Civic Auditorium cheered a vaudeville piece by Henry Brant, a splendid Sibelius Violin Concerto performance by a teenage soloist, and Beethoven's rhythmically charged Symphony no. 7. The new acoustic shell (wall is a better word) cheered back.

In fact, the acoustics of the room are noticeably changed as a result of the shell, a 24-foot-high surface that stands across the back of the orchestra, plus seven large, curved panels on the opposite wall where it joins the ceiling. The shell is comprised of 30 wooden panels, slightly convex, designed to reflect and disperse the sound. In application, however, it focuses and even magnifies the winds, more as individuals than as a choir.

The room itself is inherently dry, robbing the sonic image of any real sonority or resonance decay time. Consequently, the farther away from the shell an instrument is, the harder it must struggle to hold its own. There were times when the fewer winds surged over the larger complement of strings like an ocean swell rolling through Steamer Lane. (Conductor Larry Granger told me he's still experimenting to find the best placement. And, indeed, he seems to have struck that optimum at Watsonville's Mello Center.)

Despite this condition, Klein String Competition winner Yoon-Jung Cho seized the deliciously diabolical concerto and played the hell out of it. She may not always have cut through the orchestral fabric like Jascha Heifetz, but she never lacked for intensity and sheer guts. (More suitable room acoustics would certainly level the playing field.)

When in doubt, Cho preferred boldness, sending a message of authority right from the start and rising with fire into and through the climactic moments of each movement. Granger paid close attention to the youngster even while she occasionally bridled with impatience. The brisk tempo of the finale initially seemed too fast, but Cho reveled in it and brought the piece to a thrilling conclusion, winning noisy acclaim from the enthusiastic audience.

(It should be noted that the Klein Competition winners who have played with this orchestra over the last dozen years have never failed to make a big impression. Deserving kudos are the symphony for giving these unknown young artists valuable exposure, and the competition for attracting and rewarding such high standards of talent.)

The discrepancies and imbalances of the newly altered acoustics annoyed the beginning of the Beethoven symphony. The winds stuck out as individuals when they really should have sounded like a choir. Their solo moments were spotlighted, which, while flattering to them, did not always maintain proper balance with their colleagues. Furthermore, the first movement dragged a heavy tread, which fit the vivace marking poorly. Fortunately, as the reading unfolded, textures began to find their balance and impart legitimate expressive character.

Before the program began, Granger spoke of the work as Beethoven's "Veteran's Day"symphony, characterizing the movements as different reflections on the survivors of the Napoleonic wars. The allegro finale, he said, represented the valor of the French Resistance. Indeed, the orchestra hit that stride with fleetness of foot and high spirits.

In his late 80s, American composer Brant is still making whoopee. While he was artist-in-residence with the New Music Works last season, it was clear that his eye for the ladies is undiminished by age. But his Whoopee of 1938 is a far cry from the pieces for which he is better known today, those that are deployed for spatial effects. The composer's Glossary, performed last May at UCSC's Music Hall, surrounded the audience with a motley assemblage of instruments often playing dissimilar material.

For Brant, whoopee in 1938 reflected the vernacular music of that time. From then till quite recently, concert music rooted in vernacular music was looked down upon by American musical snobs (regardless of its popularity with the great unwashed). But today, American concert music rooted in American vernacular styles is a gold mine. Dozens of younger American composers are digging that mother lode like never before. And symphony orchestras are lapping it up as if suddenly released from a prison they had built for themselves a century ago.

Opening this concert, Whoopee was as transparently witty and delightful as the Rolling Stones' "Honky Tonk Women" and borne of similarly enlightened spirituality.

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From the November 15-22, 2000 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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