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Diverting Moments

[whitespace] A prankish pairing of Copland and Shostakovich enlivens the San Jose Symphony

By Philip Collins

LEONID GRIN and the San Jose Symphony cooked up a spicy mix last weekend that featured a gregarious pairing of Russian and American composing giants of the 20th century. Pianist Nikolai Petrov, a native of Moscow and certainly one of that city's most deserving prodigals, performed the first two piano concertos of Shostakovich, and Grin led the orchestra in Copland's Music for the Theatre (1925) and Bernstein's Divertimento for Orchestra (1980).

Aside from several acquiescent adagios and a floating andante or two, the evening was largely athletic and pranksterish. Not only did Shostakovich's C Minor Concerto end in major, but the most solemn moments of the Copland were based on the first three notes of "Three Blind Mice."

Finally, there was Bernstein's Divertimento--Lenny playing the bad boy at age 62. It fell short of razor-sharp. Drawing upon recycled goods from the composer's salad years, the Divertimento tries hard to shock and charm, but its erratic pranks lead to neither.

With a magnificent curtain-raiser like Copland's Music for the Theatre there was no place else to start. A trumpet soliloquy of coolness and combustion opens the piece, and second trumpeter Warren Bartold gave it an intense reading. Before the movement was over, principal clarinetist Michael Corner and English hornist Patricia Emerson Mitchell also had offered their share of shining moments. Copland was generous in divvying up the solos in this movement as well as the four subsequent ones, and the orchestra's principals reciprocated expertly.

Jazz and blues were big on Copland's plate when he wrote this work, and his translation of them into the orchestral medium is ingenious. The off-kilter personality of the "Dance" movement, with its spirit flirting in and out of 5/8 time, came off reckless and thrilling, though sometimes barely aligned. Grin conveyed the movement's darting likenesses nimbly and with a sure sense of priorities.

The "Interlude" movement offered the most forward-looking episode of the suite, with its slow-rocking, Charles Ives-like sway. Despite some rhythmic disorder in the flow of things, the music's mystique prevailed, and Mitchell's execution of the opening English horn melody was gorgeous. The impish "Burlesque" in rondo form was great fun, and one of the work's more blatant nods to Stravinsky.

Programming two piano concertos by Shostakovich in one evening might seem excessive, but the pairing proved strategic. The two pieces are especially complementary; in company with the Copland and Bernstein, one could readily appreciate the far-reaching influence jazz has had on composers in America as well as abroad.

Both concertos exude predominantly joyful outlooks, and neither lasts very long. The Concerto no. 1, a lean, neoclassic model scored for piano, trumpet and strings, recalls Prokofiev in various ways, particularly in its toying with one's expectations. The piano's role in both is one of willfulness and wit, and Petrov guided the instrument's puckish escapades with close rein.

Huddling slightly into the keyboard, the Russian gave the appearance of a predator engulfing his prey--and not a note got away. Petrov handled every passage with scrupulous accountability. As a result, the music's rhythmic energy benefited from the pianist's considerable weight without ever being crushed by it. He was light as helium on the keys, even the 10-finger chords that herald the concerto's ending rang sweetly.

Principal trumpeter James Dooley rendered the first concerto's second solo spot with graceful command. The work's linear habits called for smooth, shapely dispatches, which Dooley graciously supplied.

The Concerto no. 2 took up after intermission with a freshness that was enhanced by the audience's recent memory of the previous concerto. The much larger orchestration called for in the second is used quite sparingly, though to great effect. Much of the two-part imitative counterpoint that ran through Concerto no. 1 again cropped up, but with more variety of timbre and character.

The andante is an utter jewel. Its tender opening for strings surely makes Russians homesick, and the piano's surprise entrance in a new major key is a remarkable musical moment. A dervish winds the work up at breakneck speed. The orchestra and Petrov delivered a heroic finish, negotiating the music's mischievous segues of meter with flair and considerable unity.

The Divertimento made splashy exit music, at least. The eight movements zing by; there's a "Samba" that's short as a postcard, and a "Turkey Trot" that sounds like a wannabe "Billy the Kid." Solo work was near-constant and consistently good, but no one could outshine the six percussionists in a row, who couldn't help but steal the show.

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From the February 26-March 4, 1998 issue of Metro.

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