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Homegrown Sounds

The San Jose Symphony focuses
on American composers

By Philip Collins

'VOICES OF AMERICA" rang loud and clear last weekend in the San Jose Symphony's second annual concert of that name. Music Director Leonid Grin programmed a lively, surprise-filled lineup featuring music of different types and times by Americans both living and dead. It proved an attractive sampler of our rich symphonic tradition, while also providing an occasion for one of Grin and the orchestra's finest collaborations this season.

Grin leaned toward the present and recent past, with works by Michael Abels (b. 1962), Robert Xavier Rodríguez (b. 1946) and Pulitzer Prize­winner Joseph Schwantner (b. 1943), along with the late Howard Hanson (1896­1981) and Leonard Bernstein (1918­1990).

Guest narrator Danny Glover was the best thing about Schwantner's New Morning for the World (Daybreak of Freedom), a lengthy, bombastic orchestra work with recited texts by Martin Luther King Jr. Like a frame that outsizes the painting it surrounds, Schwantner's score called undo attention to its glimmering textures and militaristic drumming--a real peacock show. It was a joy to listen to Glover, though. His lyrical elocution of King's words formed the heart and soul of the work. As for music, Duke Ellington would've been far more suitable.

Hanson's Symphonic Poem Pan and the Priest led off the concert in a grand manner. An adventure piece clearly steeped in the European tradition, Pan and the Priest provided an eloquent example of early Americana. Besides its deft orchestration and effective formal proportioning, it also evoked standard exoticisms of Asian and Amerindian lineage that were much in fashion during the time it was composed, 1925­26.

African American Michael Abels' Global Warming corralled the musical traditions of Ireland, Africa, the Middle East and elsewhere with a '90s sense of economy and ethnic correctness. The work's opening motif--repeated drags upon a guïro in imitation of cicada in the desert--made an entrancing introduction. The Irish-style fiddling that followed was beautifully written and realized. In a manner of utmost accessibility, Abels created a stylistic collage that handsomely reflected America's melting pot tradition.

Bernstein's Symphony No. 1, Jeremiah, anchored the evening. This deeply expressive opus offered a powerful testament of the composer's Hebraic faith and came off particularly well as a result of soprano Jacalyn Bower-Kreitzer's excellent rendering of the third movement, the Lamentation: Lento. One would have hardly suspected that the work's mezzo-soprano tessitura lay well below her primary range; the role sounded tailor-made for Bower-Kreitzer, and her focus was galvanizing.

Grin and the orchestra made a beguiling case for Bernstein's gifts at mood-setting. The string section's luminous contributions to the Lamentation: Lento embodied its reflective melodies with rich, welling tones, and their shadings of sonorities were delectable.

The rhythmic fires in the Profanation: Vivace con brio were fueled to great effect. Grin mined the movement for all its primal powers, eliciting the rawness and intensity that Bernstein had absorbed from Harlem's stomping big bands. Principal trumpet James Dooley's long bleating wails, and Robert J. Erlebach Jr.'s pounding timpani work--juxtaposed with the strings' driving polyphony--brought the music to the boiling point. The violas earned their keep, too, with a tough-spoken fugal theme that gave the movement its second wind.

With spare, but choice, melodic means, the Jeremiah makes its points succinctly. Each movement's signature motif undergoes exhaustive recapitulations, with only modest variations, creating a distilled energy throughout that remains emblazoned in the memory long afterward.

Rodríguez forewarned the audience during his preperformance talk that his six-movement Estampie would be a mischievous contrast to the evening's otherwise serious undertakings. It turned out to be only partially true. The suite worked through contrasting atmospheres, sinewy at times, often quirky, even unabashedly lewd in its "The Slow Sleazy Rag" and "The Couple Action Rag."

The suite's longest movement, Intermezzo: Adagio, molto espressivo, however, was pensive, if not sad, tinged with dissonances that were reminiscent of early Schoenberg. The naughty stuff was most apparent in "The Slow Sleazy Rag," compliments of guest saxophonist William Trimble, whose starring role--though in good taste--was lascivious enough to warrant X-rating.

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From the January 16-22, 1997 issue of Metro

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