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Still Waiting: Pianist Yefim Bronfman energized the audience at the San Jose Symphony's last installment of the Russian Festival.

Demonic Force

Guest soloist Yefim Bronfman powered through Rachmaninoff concerto

By Scott MacClelland

NOTWITHSTANDING several impressive performances, including a couple of triumphs, Leonid Grin's Russian Festival seemed more like a marketing afterthought than a fully conceived artistic endeavor. In the middle of an eclectic San Jose Symphony season, three Signature Series programs and one in the Familiar Classics lineup gave the early weeks of winter a mélange of overexposed war horses and tempting arcana.

The most intriguing of all, Prokofiev's obscure Sinfonia Concertante for Cello and Orchestra, was replaced at the last minute by Shostakovich's rarely heard Cello Concerto no. 1 (a happy substitution, it must be said). But what was Gliere's unfamiliar, if lightweight, Harp Concerto doing in a Familiar Classics program?

Grin's Russian Festival will be remembered as much for what it was not, as for what it was. Worthier music than some of his selections abounds and gets almost no play these days. In future, the idea should be expanded to accommodate symphonic works by Balakirev, Borodin (the real thing), Kalinnikov, Scriabin and Glazunov and the now-almost-forgotten but still sensational concertos by Khachaturian. (And there are plenty more where these come from.)

For the (Friday night) final program in this miniseries, Grin and his orchestra delivered a barn-burning performance of Tchaikovsky's Symphony no. 5 in E Minor, a boldly declarative statement altogether in the spirit and style of the composer's powerful conception. In particular, the second movement, from its soaring horn melody (thank you, Wendell Rider) to its thunderous outbursts, raised the level of horsepower and exposed a grand view.

Grin opened the concert with Rachmaninoff's throbbing tone poem Isle of the Dead, a formulaic exercise in building to and receding from an orgasmic climax on the Dies irae. Not the great work as has sometimes been claimed, it nevertheless reveals many of the composer's fingerprints and makes a coherent statement.

By contrast, his last piano concerto (save the Paganini Rhapsody) is his least coherent, a mighty thicket of notes out of which emerge gravid themes that seem to die a-borning. Not unlike the Sonata in B-flat Minor, and for all its concentrated economy, the work isn't architecturally large enough to take the full measure of its abundant ideas. But it sure keeps its executants busy, and sizzling hot.

In this case, that included the pianist Yefim Bronfman who powered through the concerto's labyrinths with demonic force. At the explosive but abrupt conclusion to the first movement, he glared at the audience and, with a sharp "So there!" gesture of his head, sparked a wave of laughter across the room. In the moment, one patron chirped up, "Encore." Bronfman shot back, "Just wait."

Everyone was caught up in the excitement at hand, including Grin, whose baton was seen to sail over the first two stands of cellos on the last thunderous chord. As for that encore, Bronfman pulled a Rodney Dangerfield: We're still waiting.

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From the February 22-28, 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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