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[whitespace] Change of Routine

A guest conductor added an unexpected charge to the San Jose Symphony

By Scott MacClelland

IT IS SURPRISING how a seemingly insignificant change of routine can recharge those who perform music. When guest conductor Leslie B. Dunner chose to cut, or truncate, the usual long pauses between the movements of Schumann's Symphony in D Minor at last Friday's San Jose Symphony concert, the result was utterly fresh. A brisk and frisky spirit replaced the work's familiar, proto-Brahms heaviness. Even the minor tonality shook off its darker shadows.

A native New Yorker, Dunner served his conductor's residency with the Detroit Symphony, has assisted Kurt Masur at the New York Philharmonic since 1994, led the Dearborn Symphony, was principal conductor of the Dance Theater of Harlem and now heads the Annapolis Symphony as music director.

He came to San Jose at the last minute when announced guest conductor Roberto Paternostro canceled. (Since it is not uncommon for regional orchestras searching for a new music director to receive upward of 300 applications, being able to cover a "gig" on a moment's notice is at least silver in the pocket, and sometimes the golden equivalent of winning the lotto.)

If Dunner didn't win the lotto in San Jose, he certainly etched his name on this town. Orchestras everywhere, including the San Jose Symphony, tend to be unforgiving of podium guests who don't show them the "right stuff." Obviously, Dunner did.

Most conductors approach the Schumann symphonies (if at all) with a dutiful, warmed-over, 19th-century attitude. Of course, that doesn't fly any more, and Dunner seemed to know it. Or perhaps he didn't know it, and so much the better.

Schumann emerged as a man of urgency, vitality and a keen imagination. (A performance like this only underscores the tragedy of his untimely death two months after his 46th birthday.) Some fine solo playing highlighted the reading, particularly Robin Mayforth's warbling obbligato in the second movement.

ANOTHER ABSOLUTE highlight of the program was Wagner's Wesendonck Lieder, starring Carmella Jones, who sang the mezzo role of Amneris in last spring's concert performance of Aida.

Poems by Mathilde Wesendonck, the married Wagner's married lover, inspired the composer to create music he would soon revisit in Tristan und Isolde. With Patricia Whaley's soaring viola solo, the third of the five songs, "Im Treibhaus" (In the greenhouse), effloresced with humid eroticism, while the aching fourth, "Schmerzen" (Pain), yearned hopelessly for the extraordinary love-death of Tristan.

Actually, the entire work is a study for Tristan, and the timbre of Jones' voice seems perfectly suited to it, at once smoky and focused, a sensual tone that sometimes distracted attention from the words themselves.

If someone asks if Wagner wrote music for the tambourine, tell them with smug confidence, "Of course, in Tannhauîser." But the overture to this opera, which ended the concert's first half, only hints at the wild Venusberg music that, in its own way, also anticipated the eroticism of Tristan.

Juicy with string and wind solos, the overture gathered itself into a compelling rush to the finish under Dunner's urging. (With that taste, laced as it is with intoning pilgrims, the only sensible next indulgence is for the symphony to play the Venusberg music itself, Wagner's unrepentant orgy of screaming atonality.)

On more humanistic terms, Dunner opened his program with the noble prelude to Die Meistersinger. Lacking in the reading were the dynamic shadings that would emerge later on. And at one point, the violins got separated from their colleagues. But little harm resulted, and the orchestra plainly warmed to its guest leader as the evening unfolded.

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From the March 8-14, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

For more information about the San Jose/Silicon Valley area, visit sanjose.com.

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