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Good Bellas

Pianist Bella Davidovich shines on Chopin

By Philip Collins

Symphony concerts that leave audiences humming tunes on their way home are increasingly rare these days. The San Jose Symphony program last weekend--Tchaikovsky's Suite No. 2, Chopin's Concerto No. 1 in E Minor for Piano and Orchestra, and Liszt's Les Préludes--was an unusually tuneful exception. Les Préludes' trove of popularized melodies was hard to shake even the morning after, but it was the eloquent dexterity of guest pianist Bella Davidovich that proved most memorable.

Chopin Concerto No. 1 is essentially piano music with orchestral trimmings. Attractive and lyrically propelling, it is nevertheless an early work of modest impact. It is obvious that Chopin felt less than confident about the concerto form, as neither this opus nor his Second Concerto in F Minor show the formal cognizance or harmonic breadth of his piano music.

The composer's penchant for chromatic nuance and remote modulations was not easily translated to the concerto's broad dimensions, and as a result, the piece waxes monotonously at times. Chopin's innately brilliant keyboard writing is what keeps this work in the repertoire, and Davidovich's delicate rendering championed its virtues winningly.

Davidovich--who emigrated to the U.S. from the Soviet Union in 1978--exercised a fine blend of stylistic qualities that informed her performance with warmth as well as with pinpoint precision. Her nuanced palette of timbres revealed roots in Russia's colorful keyboard tradition, while the pristine clarity of her articulations showed off the Parisian biases of Chopin's style.

Chopin made no secret of his admiration for Mozart's sublime accomplishment in the concerto form, and Davidovich's performance made the young composer's homage abundantly clear. The connection was particularly apparent just prior to the first movement's recapitulation, during a brief episode of reverie that seemed born directly from Mozart's pen. Davidovich combed the keys as if with a feather, coaxing the movement's intimate strains with such fluidity that her occasional use of rubato (free time) was nearly imperceptible.

In terms of pure resonance, Davidovich's shading of tone was delicious to behold. The middle movement's unpressed tranquillity was heightened by the pianist's luxuriating legato touch and pedaling.

Except for her rather stiffly voiced account of the piano's opening statement, Davidovich's performance was thoroughly enthralling. Her rendering of the outer movement's exhaustive passage work sparkled, and her lyric focus enlivened every moment; even the piano's occasional obliggatos sang.

Music director Leonid Grin attentively guided the concerto's interplays, keeping a tight rein on soloist and ensemble while finessing the transitions between the two seamlessly. The alternations between moods of military rigor and tenderness during the opening allegro were negotiated upon a firm middle ground that encompassed the contrasting moods handsomely.

Tchaikovsky's Suite No. 2 got the evening off to a spirited start with variety and invention. Grin effectively maneuvered the suite's adventurous agenda, highlighting its contrasting episodes with well-drawn shadings, precise tempo changes and discerning dynamics. The first movement, "Playing With Sounds," lived up to its title with animated discourses between the instruments that accentuated the score's explorative premise. The strings' pizzicato work actually glowed, and the fugal section was as rigorously regimented as a drill team.

Grin led the fickle waltz that followed authoritatively, regulating its busy network of tempos and moods with unified aim. The chortling accompaniments for clarinets and oboe gelled gracefully, and the lower strings were buoyant when called upon. The "Burlesque" movement--sporting jazzy syncopations at least 30 years before Scott Joplin hit the circuit--grooved throughout the ranks and featured distinguished contrapuntal playing.

Best of all was the fourth movement, "Dreams of Childhood." Tchaikovsky's affection for cherished things past awakened the composer's finest attributes; nowhere in his works can one find more heartfelt genius. The movement also benefited from lovely solo work by oboist Pamela Hakl and English horn player Patricia Emerson Mitchell.

Les Préludes made a fitting finale. The tone poem's uncharacteristically brief representation of Lamartine's Poetic Meditations abounds with spirit and allure. The orchestra obliged resoundingly with crisp ensemble playing, particularly from the horns and cellos, whose featured roles make or break the whole piece.

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From the April 4-10, 1996 issue of Metro

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