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Threnody Thrill

[whitespace] Polish maestro Penderecki made believers out of SJ Symphony audience

By Scott MacClelland

KRZYSZTOF PENDERECKI'S appearance last weekend with the San Jose Symphony continues to blossom. The legendary Polish composer conveyed such authority from the conductor's podium as to make believers out of even those who weren't sure they understood his music. This included members of the symphony itself, who found themselves caught up in the Penderecki vortex.

For them, the experience took on greater stress after their guest was pressed to add his daring but difficult Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima to the program. An inordinate amount of rehearsal time was deflected toward preparing the 10-minute work whose technical requirements are like nothing this orchestra has ever played before.

A study in string sonorities, sometimes massed like a swarm of giant bees, sometimes as unisons forced to drift in and out of phase, and often lacking any discernible sense of pitch, Threnody uses original notation (which is like learning to read a new language) and demands a higher level of listening to one another among the musicians.

The Friday performance was the first time the orchestra's strings played the work through without interruption. To keep it on track, Penderecki fairly danced at the podium, giving exaggerated cues and sweeping gestures that elicited greater intensity. (After the concert, he remarked that he had lingered longer than usual on some moments because "from where I stood, the strings sounded so good.")

Neither Threnody nor his Symphony no. 4 carries any programmatic background. (Threnody was given its dedication after it was composed.) Commissioned to honor the bicentennial of the French revolution, Symphony no. 4 is simply another in a series of works that represent Penderecki's decision to take his part in extending the symphonic tradition, chiefly as it was left by Shostakovich. In other words, the only language it speaks is music.

The half-hour work begins with stentorian brass mottos, tremolo strings and pedal-point bass lines, in the manner of Anton Bruckner, the symphonist who linked Schubert to Mahler. The brass mottos recur at critical points throughout the long, single movement, while fugal episodes impart an architectural clarity. But tone color has always been high on Penderecki's list of values, and this work makes that as clear as anything else he has written.

Accordingly, he gives large solos to the winds, particularly cor anglais, bassoon, clarinet, oboe and flute; to four stands of first and second violins; and of extraordinary interest, to the entire viola section. He punctuates his rhetoric with trumpets, onstage and, antiphonally, in the balcony (the Grand Tier at San Jose Center for the Performing Arts).

The piece describes a large arc. The camera moves in for closeups and out for wide-angle images. A scherzo briefly grips the proceedings with dancing rhythms. The piece is bold, impulsive and compelling. It also needs repeated hearing to savor its richness and to fully appreciate its overall structure. Like a Stokowski orchestration of a Bach organ work, the colors and sonorities are guilty of distracting attention from the form, that component which best secures a clear memory of the experience.

The evening began with Haydn's Symphony no. 104 in D in a full-bodied reading that spilled along with vibrant spirit but only casual attention to dynamic contrasts. None of the pointed "authentic" scholarship currently afoot intruded on this performance. Penderecki startled the assembled by waving the conductor's baton with the left hand, one of the very few on the circuit to do so. (There are more well-known left-handed guitarists.)

Symphony trumpetist James Dooley then appeared for Haydn's Trumpet Concerto in E-flat. Speaking from the stage, Dooley explained that he has written out some solo cadenzas of his own, then learned that Penderecki has just crafted some cadenzas for the occasion. Dooley admitted--it wasn't easy for him--that Penderecki's were better. These three bits, piquant and elaborate by familiar standards, engaged a pair of orchestra horns in caccia, or hunting, style.

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From the February 11-17, 1999 issue of Metro.

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