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A Kingly Symphony

[whitespace] Stravinsky's rarely heard 'Oedipus Rex' dominates SJ Symphony Signature concert

By Philip Collins

ON OUR WAY to the San Jose Symphony's Signature concert Friday night, my friend lamented that despite the fact that the 20th century is drawing to an end, the vast majority of people today would still likely find Stravinsky's 1925 opera-oratorio Oedipus Rex hard to appreciate. However, judging by the audience's prolonged ovation for the symphony's wonderful performance of this austere hybrid of music theater, it seems safe to say that the gap is narrowing.

Music Director Leonid Grin drew inspired playing and rapport from his forces, which, in addition to the orchestra, included five vocal soloists, a narrator and a male chorus made up of members of the Masterworks Chorale and the San Jose Symphonic Choir.

An unmemorable reading of Haydn's Symphony no. 88 in G major started the evening off. The first two movements went like assembly-line work, innocuously paced and with little dynamic interest. The menuetto fared better; it was good and feisty, and the trio's charming Mideastern slant was delectably invoked.

Since its premiere, Stravinsky's setting of Sophocles' Oedipus Rex has been assailed by factions of both modernist and conservative camps. Despite Jean Cocteau's fascinating distillation of the play--which was then translated into Latin at the composer's request--and despite Stravinsky's ingenious collaging of disparate musical styles (ranging from Verdi to Mozart to medieval chant) and his imaginative syllabification of the text, many didn't know what to make of it. Stravinsky's unprecedented collusion of influences constituted a new brand of neoclassicism that was markedly different than his past forays.

It was daring of Grin to undertake Oedipus Rex, for even though it was programmed by San Jose Symphony in 1966, it's no easy sell. The score is full of hard-fought triumphs and only a modicum of dazzle. Although it was presented in a concert version (as is usually the case), Grin tried to dress the piece up with sprinklings of theatricality--costuming for the soloists (faux Greek wigs and makeup) and a few lighting spots. The effort added little to the overall impact, and one wonders why masks, which Stravinsky prescribed for the original staging, were not used.

As the evening's final work, Oedipus Rex offered a sad note to leave on--and a quiet one. Stravinsky and Cocteau provided Oedipus ultimate forgiveness with a concluding diminuendo that dissolves into silence upon the words "Farewell, Oedipus, our poor Oedipus. I loved you." Potent in its reserve, the work leaves listeners in a calm state of reflection. It was hardly surprising that the audience's ovation was short of hysterics.

THE PERFORMANCE, however, merited kudos all around. Grin was on top of his game. Stravinsky's sly shifts of meter and tempo, and his chameleon transformations of style and ritualized drama were combined in singularity of purpose. There were occasions when precision was in want but spirit prevailed. The chorus's coordination with the orchestra was at times only circumstantial, but Grin held the enterprise on track.

The soloists were made to order. Tenor Jon Garrison, in the title role, was solid, if incurably sullen. Garrison evoked the pathos of Oedipus' predicament with an economy of outward expression and limited tonal shading. As Jocasta, soprano Jacalyn Bower-Kreitzer was consummate. Her feature aria gave the work its crucial midway thrust, shaking the air with a vibrato that was wide enough to circle the Parthenon.

Doubling as Creon and Messenger, Dimiter Petkov was equally good. In Creon's "The God has answered," Petkov milked the song's parodied heroics effectively but met with difficulty projecting over the score's colorful accompaniment (a problem traceable to the composer in a number of instances). Stephen Guggenheim's accounts of the Shepherd's plaintive melodies were exquisitely lyrical, and the incendiary cameo by baritone Phillip Skinner as Tiresias, Oedipus' accuser, was hair-raising. As the work's orator, Bernard Jacobson provided incisive commentaries throughout, a convention that Stravinsky later regretted.

The chorus' all-important role was impressively handled overall. Its opening episode, "The plague falls on us," came off more tentative than ominous or mournful, but as the performance continued, the group's confidence grew. Its hail to Creon was radiant, and the Gloria chorus announcing Jocasta's entry was truly glorious.

This Oedipus was one of the symphony's most commendable and unique offerings in a good while--the presentation of a masterwork, relatively of our time, that is rarely encountered in the flesh.

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From the January 15-21, 1998 issue of Metro.

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