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Nova's Fertile Vistas

Ambitious symphony program includes two major works by local composers

By Philip Collins

NOVA VISTA SYMPHONY'S concert last Sunday afternoon at Foothill College was an unusual delight. It featured the premiere of a commissioned work, Songs of Loss, by Los Gatos composer Craig Bohmler, with mezzo-soprano Carla Rae Cook, a Wagnerian soprano of international standing. Cook was then joined by the San Jose Symphonic Choir in a performance of the "Anvil Chorus" and "Stride la vampa" from Verdi's Il Trovatore.

Next up, the orchestra and choir--with the addition of four additional vocal soloists--combined forces for Flight Through the Stars, a cantata by Saratoga composer Henry Mollicone. As if all that weren't enough, Nova Vista had its first CD, produced in commemoration of the symphony's 30th anniversary, on sale in the lobby.

The program started off pleasantly with a sound reading of Dvorák's Slavonic Dance op. 46, no. 2. Like all selections from these suites, this one boasts fetching melodies and diametric contrasts between exuberance and faint melancholy.

The orchestra gave an assured performance under the baton of Music Director Emily Ray that accentuated the festive major-key sections with collective bravura while daintily dancing through the minor-key episodes. At a pacing that some might consider tame, the community group tended to the work's mood plays in agile fashion. Dvorák's arresting melodies were well cared for also, despite the violins' unhomogenized bowings and tone.

The single most audible compromise in the program was unfortunately ongoing and beyond the musicians' control. The lighting system at the Robert C. Smithwick Theater is abysmal; it buzzed throughout, like a fly that wouldn't go away.

The afternoon's high point came with the premiere of Bohmler's Songs of Loss, which came off brilliantly. It was a classic composer-commission fit wherein Bohmler pushed the envelope of his resources without going beyond them. His settings of poems by Wordsworth, Tennyson, Blake and Poe used the orchestra competently and with panache.

The atmospheres of Bohmler's cycle were refreshingly contrasted from one piece to the next, giving the whole a dynamicism that afforded a variety of orchestral guises. The work's musical attachments are mostly rooted in historic periods associated with the times (the 18th and 19th centuries) in which the poetry was written, though not obediently so.

The set opened with a brilliant tutti (full orchestra) passage, which at first seemed uncharacteristic in light of the cycle's title. But the glitter proved ephemeral, and the effect worked by providing a remembrance of happiness--a high-water mark by which to measure loss. The strategy paralleled Wordsworth's own in "Ode: Intimations of Immortality."

"Dirge," a setting of Tennyson's elegy of the same name, spoke with gripping singularity of purpose. The work evolved from a short melodic turn, first stated by two bassoons knotted deeply in dissonance.

The tenor of grief rose up through the orchestra, stretching into phrases and, with Cook's entrance, tenderly arched contours. Echoes of Prokofiev's Alexander Nevsky Cantata came to mind in the gaping orchestrations that pitted piccolo and bass in mirrored melodies, some five octaves apart.

"Mad Song" was a whirlwind of orchestral might, evoking Blake's fire-breathing passions and showing off committed wherewithal on Nova Vista's part. Afterward, the cycle abruptly settled into the repose of Poe's "Parting Song." With a tint of Mahler in the air, it offered a sweet sighing amen to the cycle.

Cook honored the score with a rendering that was expressive, musical and memorized. The immediacy of her delivery gave the impression that she was in each case sharing something personal. After all, is there any other way to convey the work of Romantic poets?

MOLLICONE'S cantata, Flight Through the Stars, was commissioned by the San Jose Symphonic Choir in 1992 to commemorate the 500th anniversary of Columbus' voyage. Set to a thoroughly underwhelming libretto by Cory Wade, the work tries, with little success, to carry the notion of exploration into realms both scientific and philosophical. Depictions of Galileo's much-disputed discoveries in physics and taped excerpts of descriptions of the historic first moonwalk take Flight Through the Stars all over the map.

Mollicone's theatrical intuitions flourish in individual episodes, particularly the opening and closing choral work, and movements II and IV, with their nimble meter shifts and catchy tunes.

Bass soloist Michael Morris offered a glowing portrayal of Columbus, and Nancy Wait Kromm's solo as the Native American girl was the work's most intimate episode. Tenor Daniel Harper and mezzo-soprano Debra Lambert both provided solid contributions as well, and Leroy Kromm's expressive direction steered the cantata on course.

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From the March 20-26, 1997 issue of Metro

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