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[whitespace] Anchored in Beethoven

San Jose Chamber Orchestra played its part in the city's ongoing celebration of the composer

By Scott MacClelland

That funny-looking classical guitar--the one with an end pin that plugs into a secondary resonating box on the floor--graced Le Petit Trianon in San Jose this past Monday night (March 13). Paul Galbraith, whose numerous Delos recordings have wowed guitar enthusiasts the world over, displayed his unique instrument and performance style as part of a San Jose Chamber Orchestra program that opened with Vivaldi, embraced J.S. Bach, tasted Mozart and anchored itself in Beethoven.

The man whose CD of Bach sonatas and partitas (adapted from the violin originals) was nominated for a Grammy in 1988 joined the Chamber Orchestra in a perusal of Vivaldi's most famous lute concerto.

Holding the instrument vertically, like a cello, and with his feet straddling the ancillary sound box, Galbraith poured outsized tones into the small but lively auditorium. Even so, the orchestra, which knows no pianissimo, challenged the soloist. This contest also extended to music director Barbara Day Turner, whose harpsichord asserted its voice only when sounding alone.

Galbraith himself at last filled the room on his own solo terms in Bach's felicitous Prelude, Fugue and Allegro. Like many leading guitarists of the day, Galbraith deports himself with technical precision and, thanks to his instrument, uncommonly full sonorities. But, like many of those same luminaries, the British-speaking Brazil resident does little to shape the phrase out of strict tempo, to stamp his playing with a distinctively expressive personality.

The main Bach piece, Concerto in A Minor for Flute, Violin and Harpsichord, proved the evening's most tedious. In spite of assertive leadership from guest conductor George Cleve and delectable flutings by Maria Tamburrino, this remains players' music and lacks the great notions that bring many Bach works fully across the footlights.

Notwithstanding, the solo players (including Turner at harpsichord and violinist Cynthia Baehr) and 10 strings did commendable work on behalf of the piece. (And should anyone have been surprised when, in the climactic silent moment of a solo cadenza on the harpsichord, some audience member's cellular phone began to ring?)

Strange and Wonderful

For the evening's second half, 17 string players crowded on to the stage and were led by Cleve in a polished, shapely and dynamic reading of Mozart's youthful Divertimento, K138. In the past, this ensemble, actually too large for the room's acoustics, has developed and sustained a virtual assault on the ears.

In this case, thanks largely to Cleve's subtle massaging, a more complete range was achieved, even while the softer passages never evinced the kind of hush that most effectively penetrates the shadows of private emotions.

This intimate quality of musicianship was desired even more in the circumspect moments of Beethoven's strange and wonderful Grosse Fuge. That aside, and despite a weird loss of pitch during the quieter middle section, Cleve showed the ensemble a true comprehension of the often impenetrable piece, pulling from them an interpretive design that was alternately aggressive, thoughtful, articulate, sonorous and brash, rather like the Cleve who dominated the San Jose Symphony for two decades. And like that Cleve, at performance conclusion, he acknowledged the cheers of the assembled by lofting the conductor's score.

The work was the Chamber Orchestra's contribution to San Jose's ongoing Beethoven festival, and figuratively and almost literally, was the composer's last word. Having the last word has always suited Cleve as well, and in his moment of triumph he thanked each of the musicians with a personal handshake.

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From the March 16-22, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 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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