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[whitespace] Facets of Grin

At San Jose Symphony concert, Leonid Grin showed various sides of his conducting personality

By Scott MacClelland

LIKE SHOSTAKOVICH HIMSELF, conductor Leonid Grin of the San Jose Symphony is a man of contradictions. In his performance of the "Soviet" composer's Symphony no. 5 in D Minor, Grin drew from his orchestra a skillfully detailed and powerfully felt reading that shed fresh light on the great score. It also plumbed depths of expression rarely heard from this maestro.

If a case could be made that Grin's best work comes from music he cares deeply about, then, by comparison, his recent perusal of Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade makes it appear that the opposite of such affinity produces the opposite result.

In the Shostakovich last Saturday night, the orchestra was on high alert to the nuances of Grin's design. The slowly evolving first movement lingered long in its numerous circumspections, a pacing that underscored the impact of its powerful outbursts. When the doubt of its minor tonality finally capitulated into major, that ray of hope--so rare in Shostakovich--felt as if a warm breeze had finally put an end to winter.

But skepticism immediately reasserted itself in the second movement's circus music. Indeed, it played like a contest, with a gay flute and jocular contrabassoon bravely keeping up spirits in the face of mocking, often not subtle, sarcasm.

The flute, which carries the work's major solo role, repeatedly brought the spotlight back to Maria Tamburrino. In the largo, she and her colleagues, and harpist Dan Levitan, brought another glimmer of optimism to an otherwise profoundly desolate muse. By drawing out and holding down the strings, frequently to a whisper, Grin reflected the quiet despair that followed Stalin's chilling siege against Russian artists, Shostakovich in particular, that began in 1937.

Hope against hope resounds in the heroic finale, the famously bitter "our business is rejoicing" movement with which Shostakovich admonished those who questioned its sincerity. If the composer saw the piece as a parody of optimism, the music itself can go either way, depending on the listener. Most seem to have rejected the composer's cynicism, which accounts for why this symphony is considered Shostakovich's Eroica, the closest he would ever come to an unambiguous, life-affirming declamation.

Although Grin certainly guided the performance to excellence, one had to wonder why it required such a physical effort on his part. He certainly got equally powerful results from Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto in D without anywhere near as much motion on the podium.

Moreover, his performance of the concerto showed excellent control and concentration as he accompanied the dazzling solo performance by 15-year-old Yura Lee. She, of uncommon self-possession, was intensely focused on her part, if not yet like those seasoned masters who look to play occasional dialogues with one or another solo within in the orchestra. Nevertheless, Lee asserted a fearless, aggressive performance that showed no hesitation or doubt.

Indeed, she hit that ball right out of the park, to the extreme pleasure of the audience. A cherub with a round face and serious expression, Lee shaped a technically flawless and temperamentally fiery performance. The only downside was strings slipping out of pitch on her instrument at the end of the first and third movements, right where the dialogues between solo and orchestra are so tightly knit. This distraction might not have been so noticeable but for her rich, room-filling tone. And, in any case, she powered through with brazen confidence.

If Grin's contained podium behavior for the Tchaikovsky and aerobic workout during the Shostakovich made him seem like two different conductors, his delusions-of-Baryshnikov choreography for the opening Night on Bald Mountain sailed right over the top. Noisy and lightweight to be sure, Rimsky's glitzy orchestration cannot conceal the superficiality of Mussorgsky's original. Was it Grin's idea to call attention to himself and away from the music? At least his musicians made as much as possible of a "tone poem" that, thanks to Rimsky, doesn't even follow its own programmatic outline.

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From the February 8-14, 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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