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[whitespace] Mix and Match

The San Jose Chamber Orchestra welcomed five guest composers to its May 13 concert

By Scott MacClelland

CAN ANYONE in Santa Clara Valley classical music be having as much fun as Barbara Day Turner? Well, yes. And that would be those fans who flock to Le Petit Trianon to hear her San Jose Chamber Orchestra. Turner's passion reflects as an adventure of discovery, equally in the artists she engages, the composers she commissions and the programs she designs.

Last Sunday's concert (May 13) was no exception, with five guest conductors, familiar and unfamiliar, conducting five different works, familiar and unfamiliar.

The acoustically miraculous auditorium now sports all new seating and cushy carpet underfoot. Carpeting in concert halls usually distorts and sometimes kills acoustics. But not here, where lively gets a whole new meaning.

So detailed is the response of this room that Turner's orchestra of 20 strings actually sounds different depending on who's waving the baton. This effect has as much to do with a conductor's body English as with stick technique. When a conductor is too brittle or rigid in his or her performance, the orchestra echoes it. When his or her gestures are fluid and commodious, sonorities rise and expand.

To objectify the experience of listening, it is useful to observe the relationship between tempo and phrase, and to expect dynamic contrasts to be detailed out.

Ilana Eden, whose primary experience has been in Southern California musical theater, did little with dynamics in her performance of Mary Carol Warwick's Overture to Grand National, a musical based on Enid Bagnold's National Velvet. This fresh reprise of a style associated with the musical-comedy overture of yesteryear found Eden's two hands in an up/down lockstep most of the time, instead of the left being used to shade and shape. While the reading was therefore underdetailed, it nevertheless sounded rich and robust.

Robert Wood, with considerable operatic experience (including conducting Opera San José), led a superficial performance of Vaughan Williams' Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis. Phrasing was his weak link; where the music wanted its sonority to flower, Wood motored along a tempo.

While well played, including impressive solos on violin and viola, the work's inherent grandeur was never allowed to make its mark. Likewise, its mystique was taken for granted.

Manila-born Jay Jordana, experienced in jazz and vocal music, was the first to show what a conductor can and ought to do: that is, actively conduct the meter changes and limn the details. And she did it with Ether and Milongo, two challenging movements from Katrina Wreede's What Goes On in the Ether (composed for SJCO in the winter of 1998). Ether buzzes with pizzicato and a climactic tremolo; Milongo dances the tango.

The gravitational pull of tonality in the piece is weak, loading more responsibility on the conductor to make sense of the music. Jordana pulled that rabbit out of a hat with a high order of skill, even while the work's complexity caused its players to stumble a couple of times.

Skilled in opera, Austria-born Kurt Kopecky conducted Einojuhani Rautavaara's Canto III, a long, slow, increasingly dense crescendo of glowing sonority that finally bursts into dance. Said to have been inspired by James Joyce, the work remains primarily a study on the slow-built climax and demanded little artistry of its conductor.

A seasoned pro, Anthony Quartuccio, led Grieg's Holberg Suite with the most complete package of the conductor's art seen all evening. In turns, he was crisply articulate and warmly lyrical, and the orchestra reflected it with confidence and in fine style. A San Francisco native, Curtis graduate, and protégé of Max Rudolf, Quartuccio always directed focus to the main event, effectively spotlighting the leading line of this baroque-inspired masterpiece.

A program like this turns every member of the audience into a critic, virtually forced to compare the parading guest conductors point by point. This was an object lesson in discovering some of the tricks of the trade. Another SJCO adventure is scheduled for June 10.

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Web extra to the May 17-23, 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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