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A Major A Minor

SJ Symphony's Shostakovich is a revelation

By Philip Collins

LEONID GRIN shared two monumental works from his Russian homeland at the San Jose Symphony's Signature concert Friday night. Tchaikovsky's Fifth Symphony wasn't exactly a revelation, but Grin's direction stirred fire in the old warhorse. The performance was informed with a rightness of style that embraced the music's virtues and rose to its raptures resoundingly.

On the other hand, Shostakovich's Concerto in A Minor for Violin and Orchestra was indeed nothing short of a revelation. Profoundly expressive, bursting with originality and dazzling without the slightest hint of artificiality, the work brashly reorients the classic formula in ways other than adding an extra movement to the usual three-movement scheme.

Guest violinist Dmitry Sitkovetsky's performance was seminal to the experience; his thoughtfully guided technique made this musical jewel shine. Sitkovetsky tended to the work's manifold virtuosities with thoroughness and delicacy. His sights stayed locked on the score's essential qualities, sidestepping numerous opportunities for self-aggrandizement.

The large-scale musical continuities that Shostakovich invested upon the solo part over the course of its four movements give this concerto its unique impact, and Sitkovetsky voiced the work's dramatic structure eloquently. During the cadenza linking the third and fourth movements, Sitkovetsky penetrated the digital calisthenics and coaxed the score's deepest truths to the surface.

The winding, spidery double-stops of the cadenza were negotiated with facile grace. For the violin's ceaseless, flowing narratives in the Nocturne, Sitkovetsky shepherded and coaxed the issue onward with discerning adjustments between vibrato tone and lack thereof.

Composed in 1947 and 1948, the concerto occupies a special place among Shostakovich's sprawling index of works. Seldom does one find such poignant harmonic detail or orchestral richness coming from Shostakovich, let alone such tenderness. Here the composer leans towards the gentle, modal aspects of the A-minor key, encompassing much of the work in quiet, compassionate surroundings. The lengthy opening movement, Nocturne, serves as a startling first impression, biasing all that follows: a brief Scherzo, a timeless, floating Passacalia and finally, a fiercely driven Burlesca.

The concerto echoes the clandestine conditions in which Shostakovich composed the work. He took up the project unannounced and without commission, finally unveiling it in 1953, four years after its completion. It was no coincidence that Stalin's death shortly preceded the premiere, for the music bears little resemblance to the stock-in-trade Soviet Realism that composers in Russia were permitted to create.

Kinships to Bartok sounded in the first movement, with its concise string harmonies based on intervals of seconds and fourths, and resemblances to Stravinsky's Violin Concerto cropped up in the Scherzo. But these are incidental road marks on a musical journey of dauntless and ultimately incomparable merit. Shostakovich's ability to construct the violin's virtuosities so integrally into the music's emotional fabric, without lapsing into exhibitionism, is a feat few others have ever accomplished so strikingly.

Grin pulled inspired and exacting work from the orchestra. The first movement's gradually measured intensity grew with sustained energy. The Scherzo's darting maneuvers in and out of assorted textures and configurations were accomplished with collective precision. The third movement's mysteries, underscored by the strings' irregularly paced Passacalia figure, were impressively enjoined.

Tchaikovsky's Fifth Symphony was perhaps a welcome relief for those who found the less familiar ingenuities of the Shostakovich ungratifying, but I found the sequence simply anticlimactic. The orchestra turned in a dignified sounding that honored the score passionately, but in the wake of Shostakovich's still-surprising ideas and effective structuring of form, Tchaikovsky's once-bold forays were predictable. Tchaikovsky's tireless melodic invention and orchestrational genius proved treats unto themselves, but the dramatic contexts that made their impact so strong during earlier encounters, seemed dated.

The real payoff was in the solo work. Wendell Rider's account of the second movement's famous horn melody was so expert that time seemed suspended. Oboist Pamela Hakl followed suit with gorgeous lyricism--and eventually much of the woodwind section did likewise. During the Valse movement, the strings' fine ensemble playing brought out Tchaikovsky's élan on the dance floor, and the trombone's blazing account of the finale rounded out the whole affair gloriously.

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From the May 9-15, 1996 issue of Metro

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