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[whitespace] Communal Intoxication

The SJ Symphony and its audiences succumbed to the marvelous flimflam of Berlioz' 'Symphonie fantastique'

By Scott MacClelland

WHY DID THE San Jose Symphony sound so much better in Hector Berlioz' Symphonie fantastique than the foregoing Ravel works heard last Saturday night? (It was Ravel, after all, who called Berlioz "the worst musician among the musical geniuses.")

And what about those passages made up only of sequences, lacking anything that could be called a melody, sitting atop plain vanilla harmonies and paying little if any attention to rhythm? How many composers would dare to finesse an audience, not to mention an orchestra of musicians, with nothing as if it were something?

But in this outing of the greatest symphonic flimflam of all time, no one was heard to complain, especially the members of the orchestra, who appeared to revel in the gaudy colors, flamboyant tunes and exotic special effects that ran riot for 50 unquenchable minutes. In the audience, chuckles, giggles and grins accompanied every trick. Anyone who resisted the communal intoxication obviously didn't belong in the Center for the Performing Arts.

At the end, a standing (or was it staggering?) ovation greeted one of the orchestra's best performances this season, a reading that thumbed its nose at the rest of the symphonic repertoire. It was just this arrogance and, in the finale, unmasked mockery that won the impertinent 27-year-old Berlioz the ridicule of Rossini, Mendelssohn, Chopin, Schumann (Mr. and Mrs.), Bizet and Debussy. (Brahms, on the other hand, called him "devilishly smart.")

The smartest thing Berlioz did in Symphonie fantastique was write a new vocabulary of sounds and sound effects. His inspiration was the parade of pictorial fantasies that besotted his mind. His creative instincts--which no detractor will ever take away from him--allowed him to shift the focus from flimsy architecture to glorious ephemera.

And Berlioz made it look way too easy. A few familiar classical devices given over to momentary impulses were all it took, along with the flattery of musicians common to all great orchestrators.

Not surprisingly, most solo cameos went to wind players, with a crucial few given to selected brass and percussion. Among the former was a welcome new face, Bennie Cottone, playing cor anglais, a signal part in the third movement. Conductor Leonid Grin allowed generous space for this bucolic scene, and the other wind solos that filled it.

But it was the orchestra's tempi, elasticity, dynamics and overall zeal that goes to their credit and to Grin's. From intimate solo to full-blown symphonic eruption, this was a reading to remember, an irresistible argument in favor of Berlioz' genius. With flushed excitement, the woman to my right declared, "It sounded like movie music." It was a genuine compliment.

COTTONE ALSO HAD A big solo in the circumspect slow movement of Ravel's Piano Concerto in G, a unique moment of unsentimental wistfulness. But how can you be unsentimental and wistful at the same time? Mozart could do it. Mikhail Rudy, the soloist in this case, couldn't. Instead, Rudy opted for an even more superficial performance of the piece overall than the most aloof French pianists are willing to give.

The influence of George Gershwin, self-consciously incorporated by Ravel, made no particular impact on Rudy, who was content to turn the outer movements into unstylistic white-bread bravura. (The audience response to his derring-do provoked an encore, a scene from Stravinsky's Petrushka, told in terms of "Look, Ma ..." digital congestion.)

Grin opened the program with Ravel's Alborada del Gracioso, a brilliant orchestration inspired by Chabrier's Espana. Moreover, Ravel targets an exactitude that Berlioz was content to skirt.

For all their commendable capabilities, the San Jose musicians came up tentative, vivid in color but tepid in spirit. Smoldering Gypsy passion dissipated so much heat that ignition became impossible. The explosive final cadence, welcome for every other reason, sounded as an afterthought that only awakened those who had dozed off.

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From the April 5-11, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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

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