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Brahms' Beauties

[whitespace] Guest soloists dominate San Jose Symphony's performance of Brahms' Double Concerto

By Philip Collins

PROFOUND MUSICAL utterances and playful havoc proved curious company at San Jose Symphony's Signature Concert Friday evening. Shostakovich's lop-eared three-movement Symphony no. 6 in B minor is an indecipherable oddity unto itself: a slow first movement of probing expression followed by two movements of sheer daffiness.

The Shostakovich was paired in the first half of the program with a doodling curtain-raiser, The Tiger's Tail by Joelle Wallach, a New York-based composer, presently in residence at Villa Montalvo.

The payoff came after intermission, when Brahms' Concerto in A minor for Violin, Cello and Orchestra took over. There are those who regard the Double Concerto as a marred effort--less focused formally than Brahms' other concerti--but nevertheless, it is a ravishing accomplishment.

Brahms wrote the work for his colleague and friend violinist Joseph Joachim, following a prolonged rift in their relationship. The concerto was intended to initiate a reconciliation between the two men, and it apparently accomplished that goal.

Grand and flowing, the piece brims with lyricism. Brahms gave the violin and cello co-starring roles as loving accomplices, and the evening's guest soloists--violinist Arve Tellefsen and cellist Arto Noras--made a real honeymoon of it. Brahms' score affords shining occasions for both instruments with little competitiveness between them, except for some playful jousts here and there.

For the most part, Brahms used the instruments' combined resources as a means of expanding the breadth and variety of melody. The composer's characteristic penchant for the long line is here manifested to virtuosic and subtle lengths. Tellefsen and Noras brought a honed singularity of purpose to their playing. Together and individually, they served the concerto's spirit and resplendent beauties. If their fortes were at times on the ferocious side, it was at no cost to the score's tender manner.

With bright tone and vigor, Tellefsen and Noras uncapped the opening allegro, singing out their shared melodies as if from mountaintops. The two soloists maintained a tight rapport from the very beginning. The score bears imaginative interplays between the violin and cello, and Tellefsen and Noras responded hand in glove to them all.

Whether sharing a single melody or piecing one together, they intertwined like tributaries. Both players exhibited utmost appreciation of the subtle contours of Brahms' enterprise. As the music's terrain changed, they did too, ebbing smoothly during the andante's calm while knifing in and out of the swifter currents in the outer movements.

In the andante, the soloists surmounted the score's arching phrases gracefully, reciprocating with one another in mirrored likenesses. Restful and winding, their duets gave the impression of a single voice of near-limitless range. The movement unfolded like a story being told, with Tellefsen and Noras providing the majority of narrative but with others pitching in as well. The duet by principal flutist Maria Tamburrino and principal bassoonist Deborah Kramer was especially lovely.

Although the orchestra, under the direction of Leonid Grin, lent able support to the soloists by and large, the andante endured the most difficulty. The movement's feathery 6/8 episodes limped rather than lilted, and the textural shapings didn't benefit from complete complicity. In all fairness, the power and elasticity of Tellefsen's and Noras' solo work could've made any orchestra seem stiff.

The finale had a wonderful thrust behind it. With spry rhythmic support from the lower strings and quick fiddle work--coaxed by auditioning concertmaster Robin Mayforth--the movement exerted an exhilarating sweep. The strings' lush chordal motif was handsomely rounded out and welcome upon each reprise.

The best thing going for The Tiger's Tail was its brevity. The reading was ungroomed, and Wallach's orchestration accentuated tuning complications between the woodwinds and brass to ill effect. The solos were hard to sort out amid the mayhem, and the melodies themselves were unmemorable.

Shostakovich's Symphony no. 6, composed in 1939 to honor Lenin, is a far cry from heroic--and none too flattering to its subject. The opening largo drew well-balanced counterpoints and sonorities from the strings. Wendell Rider's horn solo early in the movement was broad and soaring, and English hornist Patricia Emerson delivered her featured passages with consummate poise but compromised tone.

On the heels of the symphony's last concert, however, which was a veritable Shostakovich-athon featuring the composer's two piano concerti, the Symphony no. 6 was a hard sell.

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From the March 12-18, 1998 issue of Metro.

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