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[whitespace] Poised for a Breakout

If the San Jose Chamber Orchestra can tame the acoustics at Le Petit Trianon, all indicators point up

By Scott MacClelland

NOW IN ITS ninth season, Barbara Day Turner's San Jose Chamber Orchestra is--as high-stakes investors like to say--"poised for a breakout." The talent is there, the leadership is intense and the vision is clear.

All of these qualities got a highly charged display last Sunday at Le Petit Trianon, that curious 1920s replica of an 18th-century outbuilding at Versailles (yes, that Versailles) located in the first block of North Fifth Street, now a hard-scrabble neighborhood.

Who would go there, you might ask? A vibrant crowd of enthusiastic music lovers--from seniors to university students--packed the meager 275 seats with high expectations. As if to underscore the orchestra's allure, the small auditorium delivers a powerful acoustical punch.

In fact, on this occasion, the loud room distorted Turner's orchestra to the point that the dynamic marking piano never got below mezzo-forte, and pianissimo never saw the light of day.

At the end of Aaron Copland's Concerto for Clarinet, the excellent soloist Michael Corner and Turner's 18 string players got caught up in an unseemly loudness competition, she exhorting her musicians to give more, he finding ways to shriek back.

Corner plays without vibrato (most of the time) and projected a pure, dreamy tone in the opening lullaby. A handsome cadenza gave him a chance to show off his range, and with piano and bass, the finale swayed to a jazz back beat until high volume turned the closing moments coarse.

Opening the program with Mozart's Adagio and Fugue in C Minor K546, Turner drove the strings with a dramatic extravagance that made the usually understated composer sound strangely desperate. The low strings (two cellos and two contrabasses) swelled into a big growling hairball, inarticulate and muddy. The violins poured on such effort that their tone grew strident and harsh.

Though Turner's interpretive approach added its own personal twist to Mozart's Baroque-style piece, it was the forcefully inflated playing that did the real damage. In the entire program, no truly quiet playing was heard, a clue that those on stage do not hear an accurate representation of what the audience is getting.

This is a significant loss, especially in a lively room, since expressiveness depends so heavily on dynamics and since skilled musicians can draw their listeners in even as they soften to less than a whisper.

Ending the short program was Astor Piazzolla's Las Cuatro Estaciones Porteñas, a "four seasons" in the composer's signature tango nuevo style.

Each of its movements framed a slower, softer passage with driving, macho syncopations and flair. Solos from violin, cello and viola imparted an intimate, personal quality, while Craig Bohmler kept things sharp and clear with his extraordinary pianism. Bohmler got his own spotlight in the last movement, and concertmaster Cynthia Baehr was a gem throughout.

While the Piazzolla is in no way fragile, neither was it allowed to slip into the coarseness that affected the other two works. Given the acoustic "efficiency" of the room, however, the bottom end was consistently too heavy. (Chamber orchestras of this configuration rarely use more than one contrabass.)

The San Jose Chamber Orchestra's CD (of music by Michael Ching, Steven Mark Kohn, Chen Yi and Michael Touchi) shows that the sound at Le Petit Trianon can be tamed. With that accomplished in live performances, this little orchestra's next breakout could be expressions of intimacy. That might occur at SJCO's next concert, March 13, when George Cleve conducts, and the soloists are guitarist Paul Galbraith, flutist Maria Tamburrino and, at harpsichord, Barbara Day Turner.

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From the January 27-February 2, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 1999 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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