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[whitespace] Poet Pianist: Stewart Goodyear added depth to Grieg's Piano Concerto in A Minor.

Two Firsts, Two Seconds

Works by Grieg and Lees outdistance dull Dvorák and shallow Rimsky at SJ Symphony

By Scott MacClelland

BY FAILING TO DELIVER his new piece in timely fashion, Cambodian composer Chinary Ung did Leonid Grin a favor. The San Jose Symphony conductor, who holds sway over a Signature series of mostly warhorses and a Familiar Classics series of often unfamiliar repertoire, was able to replace the challenging world premiere with a lightweight Rimsky-Korsakov piece that everyone knows and (yawn) loves, Russian Easter.

The other new piece on what had been billed as an "evening of firsts" was Constellations, a brief charm of infectious rhythms and colorful instrumentation by Benjamin Lees. For substance, the program plumbed the depths, shallow as they are, of Grieg's Piano Concerto in A Minor and Dvorák's Symphonic Variations.

Although Ung would have given the ear something truly different to chew on, the remaining entertainment enjoyed easy play by Grin and his orchestra--and satisfying results. In particular, Grieg's concerto proved the highlight of the concert, with diminutive 22-year-old Canadian pianist Stewart Goodyear working up a high degree of artistic impulse.

It wasn't always thus, as the first movement felt more like a warm-up, notes falling reliably into place but repeating phrases sounding like mechanical copies of what had just gone before. In the slow movement, however, Goodyear turned into a poet, sensitively shaping phrases and shading dynamics. His image grew along with the muse; his face opened a window onto a complex soul.

The final movement synthesized the best of both worlds, a solid technical authority that served a higher art. Whatever the pecking order of the world's Top 10 piano concertos, Goodyear notched up this one with rare distinction.

Grin opted to open with the Rimsky concert overture, a piece that justifies its thematic repetitions through vivacious orchestral display. For all its thrills and bombast, however, it lingers in the mind like cotton candy on the tongue. If there's one thing Rimsky lacks conspicuously, it is mastery of forms. He even falls down in variations (witness this piece) on which fledgling composers cut their teeth. (At least he recognized the benefit to his own reputation of orchestrating masterpieces by Mussorgsky and Borodin, then dead and unable to fend him off.)

Dvorák had no problem with variations (even though he used the form sparingly), due to being educated in the classical forms, the very education Rimsky and company rejected in music's most famous example of throwing out the baby with the bath water. If this Dvorák work could be faulted, it is for an overload. Twenty-seven variations in a 23-minute piece demand a quality that approaches Bach's Goldberg or Beethoven's Diabelli, or at least Rachmaninoff's Paganini.

Alas, Dvorák's inspiration lingers too often in the pedestrian, making the listening experience seem longer than it actually is. The work's faults could not be blamed on the reading. Here is a piece whose highlights crave to be excerpted from their fellows.

Now 75, Lees, who has spent most of his life in California, spoke from the stage about his Constellations, which was written to commemorate the 700 years the Grimaldi family has owned and operated the casinos at Monte Carlo. By his own admission, the piece is more on the scale of fireworks than celestial subdivisions.

Regardless, the 10-minute opus flashes more mastery of total resources than either the Dvorák or the Rimsky. Wisely, Lees avoids metaphors intended to flatter Prince Rainier's household and instead goes out on the town for a night of explosive effects and rhythmic sparklers. Grin deftly negotiated tripping meter changes and savory voice-leading in a complex symphonic salad tossed with endive dissonances and spicy percussion croutons. The orchestra tasted great.

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From the May 4-10, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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