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[whitespace] Saving Grace

Last-minute sub Ani Aznavoorian sparked a marvelous Shostakovich at San Jose Symphony

By Scott MacClelland

HOW LUCKY CAN YOU GET? When Natalia Gutman cancelled her engagement with the San Jose Symphony, 23-year-old Ani Aznavoorian saved the evening. Not only did the young American argue Shostakovich's Cello Concerto with urgency and intensity, but, ironically, she took that spark with her when she left the stage. Without it, conductor Leonid Grin proved himself a dull boy in Rimsky-Korsakov's programmatic masterpiece Scheherazade.

Shostakovich wrote both of his cello concertos for the great Mstislav Rostropovich, the first in 1959, shortly after the Leningrad Symphony. The work is serious and personal but, unlike many of his later pieces, extroverted. Indeed, it is easy to see a portrait of the cellist in the composer's music.

Shostakovich bases the work on his often-quoted musical monogram, D--E-flat--C--B (DSCH in German musical notation), which is heard at the very start. The first movement bristles with irony and energy squeezed from those four notes. A deep melancholy opens the second movement, in which the cello engages in dialogues with concertante solos on other instruments, as the strings give way to drama told tragically. The work's big cadenza, a fiercely articulated and sustained outburst, is a movement unto itself, followed by a return to the brilliance of the opening.

Aznavoorian played the work with brash dedication, a youthful quality that easily made up for any lack of mature insight or Russian sensibilities. The orchestra provided solid support.

So, then, how do you explain a Russian (sorry, Ukranian) conductor who brings so little vision to such essentially Russian music as Scheherazade? The program booklet "profile" says Grin "has been widely hailed for his passionate approach to music." One can only imagine what might happen if he got interested in it. Despite all the expressive potential in Scheherazade, Grin's reading was white bread.

Scheherazade demands interpretive imagination. The work's abundant orchestral solos require guidance, even tutelage, from its presumably better-informed conductor. Ultimately, all of those solos are characters in a drama, each with his own purpose and personality.

As an example, concertmaster Robin Mayforth in the title role is trying to save her life by inventing new and more fascinating tales night after night, for 1001 nights. But playing the right notes was the closest Mayforth came to conveying any life-and-death desperation. If Grin bothered to instruct her, it didn't show. Neither did it show in the other solo players, who, it appeared, were left pretty much to their own ideas, not programmatic or dramatic as implied, but musically workaday.

How does a conductor justify himself when playing program music? By revealing a vision of the meaning of the music not obvious in the notes. By teaching his orchestra the fine points of interpretive inflection that reveal that meaning. By inspiring his musicians to expressive instincts they might not have previously considered.

It's a teaching job, always a teaching job. Musicians and audience members alike need to be shown more, to be shown better, to be shown vision. Grin's reading of Scheherazade last Friday was the work of a man bored with his job. His orchestra played well, but his principals revealed no new knowledge of Russian folklore or Russian attitudes about Persian or Indian mythology. If Rimsky never had a profound idea (said his star pupil Stravinsky), he had little choice but to depend on his intrepreters. This time the paramount interpreter let him down.

The themes from Borodin's opera Prince Igor flit by with efficiency and formal concentration in the overture Glazunov cobbled for the piece from having heard Borodin improvise it on the piano. Curiously, Borodin was more skilled at translating German classical procedures than were his colleagues among the brotherhood of five nationalist composers, which included Rimsky-Korsakov (who took on the major task of putting Prince Igor into performance shape). Grin set the overture in motion, and it pretty well played itself.

When all is said and done, the Borodin and Rimsky's Scheherazade have at least a palette of vivacious colors and singable tunes going for them. But for the expectation of interpretive possibilities, of artistic insights, of unexpected discoveries, they sound just as good on a CD played through a quality audio system.

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From the January 11-17, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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