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[whitespace] No Time To Smell The Roses

Leonid Grin and the San Jose Symphony raced through Beethoven's 'Pastoral'

By Scott MacClelland

LEONID GRIN'S PERFORMANCE of Beethoven's Symphony no. 6 (Pastoral) last Saturday argued early and often that this may be the hardest Beethoven symphony to pull off. If that conclusion is not universally embraced, Grin at least proved that the work poses unique challenges.

Aside from repeating patterns that border on repetitiousness (rare in Beethoven) and harmonic development that stays surprisingly close to home, the outer movements specifically call for subjective interpretation, specifically "joyous feelings" and "grateful feelings," from its interpreters.

Grin took off briskly and kept going at pretty much that pace. If this was joy, it certainly found itself driven by serious determination. If this joy was supposed to be aroused by "arrival in the countryside," Grin was caught up in escaping the suburbs.

By the time Beethoven had slowed his step so as not to miss the rustle of leaves and buzz of dragonflies that would soon be stolen from him forever, Grin was still driving out of town. Whatever happened to slowing down to a rural pace, much less stopping and smelling the roses?

At last, in "Scene by the Brook," a broader phrase acknowledged the presence of fresh air and warm sunshine. "Gathering of the County Folk, Thunderstorm" and "Shepherd's Song" trailed from one to the next without a break, followed by those "grateful feelings." But Grin rushed through the latter without properly building to the last soaring climax, which, as a result, made no more impact than one of several little hills in a lumpy landscape.

The narrative descriptions of this program music were adequately serviced, but the expressive range was surprisingly unimaginative. Even the musical devices that could have underscored imagery and added character went for granted. Conductors from Bruno Walter to Thomas Beecham, from Herbert von Karajan to Leonard Bernstein, from Roger Norrington to David Zinman, have shown us, have spoiled us.

The orchestra came through for the most part, but without the electricity it achieved in Mahler's Symphony in G or Schubert's Symphony in C, heard earlier this season. Hornist Wendell Rider choked a couple of conspicuously exposed notes in the clutch.

LUCKILY, this all-Beethoven program (part of a citywide Beethoven festival, which, according to San Jose Symphony program notes, was initiated by Grin) enjoyed the benefit of British pianist Leon McCawley as soloist in the Concerto in C minor. This young artist displayed a deft touch and clarity of tone that fell easy on the ear.

If not much bravura ignited the work, little is called for. In fact, comparisons with Mozart's Concerto in C minor are inevitable since Beethoven so deeply admired that work. Though both Mozart and Beethoven were 30 when they wrote their C minor concertos, Mozart was in the full flower of his genius while Beethoven was just getting his compositional legs under him.

Although Mozart was the operational template for Beethoven in this form, the latter still constructed an original. The orchestra, for example, gets both a big, symphonic exposition and the crucial modulation typically left in the hands of the soloist, forever raising the dramatic stakes of the classical concerto.

Happily, soloist and conductor worked smoothly together in this reading, even while McCawley successfully held the spotlight (and played the published notes Beethoven himself only improvised at the premiere).

This program opened with the brooding overture to Coriolan, a work written as incidental music to accompany a production of the play by von Collin. As the Beethoven series continues, cellist Isolde Hayer and pianist Florian Birsak will perform at Le Petit Trianon on Sunday (Feb. 27) and Günther Einhaus will conduct the San Jose Symphony in the overture to Fidelio, Violin Concerto (in the piano version) and Symphony no. 8, March 3-5.

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From the February 24-March 1, 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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