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A Muted Brahms

Art and life intersect at San Jose Symphony

By Philip Collins

A STRANGE intersection of life and art occurred at Friday's performance by the San Jose Symphony--something that precludes a purely musical review. Considering the predominately mediocre performances of both Schubert's Symphony no. 7 (Unfinished) and Brahms' A German Requiem, it is perhaps just as well.

During the Requiem's sixth movement, a member of the chorus fell a distance of six feet or so into the rear row of woodwinds. A commotion, accompanied by a woman's cry, cut through the music's texture and broke the concentration of many. My awareness that a person might be injured made the performance suddenly seem inconsequential.

The incident prompted baritone Håkan Hagegård to take his seat in the midst of his solo. Seeing the activities of several musicians, and also seeing that the woman wasn't getting up, left the impression that she had possibly taken a serious spill. Music Director Leonid Grin pushed forward with the performance, and the juxtaposition of the work's especially compassionate lyrics--"I will comfort you, as one whom his mother comforteth"--with the knowledge that a singer might be hurt was sadly ironic.

Eventually, two men came to assist the woman offstage. Had the movement been interrupted to attend to the chorus member, and then begun again, the concert would have let out no more than four or five minutes later. Such is art, though. (Fortunately, the singer was not hurt and returned to attend Saturday's concert.)

SCHUBERT'S Unfinished made a brief first half for the program and offered some beguiling moments. The blends by the principals--clarinetist Michael Corner and oboist Pamela Hakl--in the first movement's primary theme were snug and songful, entwined like a single instrument. The violins delivered their melodies with some elegance also, though the celli voicings of the same were a bit awkward.

Overall, the reading seldom achieved the fluidity we've come to expect from Schubert's incomplete masterpiece. The subliminal off-beat accompaniments jerked rather than scintillated, and the sonorities gelled poorly. The chordal passages were neither well tuned nor groomed.

A very unshapely andante con moto followed. Its best moments rested on the solo virtues of principal flutist Maria Tamburrino, Corner's clarinet work and horn player Wendell Rider's sweet touches on the high end. The movement's arching arpeggiated figure endured random-seeming revisions as it passed through the orchestra's sections. As in the opening movement, the supporting undercarriage linked up marginally with foreground activities.

The engagement of soprano Marvis Martin and baritone Håkan Hagegård as soloists was the key to the Requiem's high points. Also, the orchestra's playing came closer to the mark than in the Schubert.

The second movement's mysterious turns of dark into light and back again worked their magic. Brahms' inflectional maneuvers between major and minor tonalities, bridged by breath-taking swells of melody, evoke the text's description of man's ephemeral time on Earth--"For all flesh is as grass, and all the glory of man as the flower of grass"--with the irrefutability of God's own hand, and the performance captured it well.

Hagegård's glowing account of the prayerful andante moderato-- "Lord, teach me that there must be an end of me"--lifted the work into sunlight. The subsequent quickening upon the text "Ah, what vain things are all men" brought other human shortfalls to bear, particularly in the chorus' rendering of the movement's concluding fugal passages.

The contributions of the San Jose State University Chorale and Concert Choir were hit and miss but quite expressive most of the time. The choral episodes generally fared better than the contrapuntal ones. The tenors registered rarely when on their own, and the sopranos were audibly challenged by the score's upper climbs.

Hagegård, who won wide acclaim for his performance as Papageno in Ingmar Bergman's film version of Mozart's The Magic Flute, brought clarion tone to his solos. His voice was both warm and bright, his phrasing intimately wrapping around each lyric.

Martin made a suitable complement to Hagegård with delicate timbres that nevertheless carried abundantly well. Aside from entrances that sometimes pressed sharply, Martin's rendering of the fifth movement was nearly transcendent.

The performance's completion drew polite applause, followed by a drawn-out, tenuous standing ovation. The orchestra had performed better many times before, and likewise, the audience's response was short of the fervency usually accorded such occasions. I myself could not help but wonder about the fallen singer. It seemed appropriate, given the humane tenor of the Brahms, that some mention of the woman's condition be included.

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From the April 10-16, 1997 issue of Metro

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