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[whitespace] 'Psyche' Hotline

The San Jose Chamber Orchestra shows off composer Michael Ching's new 'Psyche and Eros'

By Scott MacClelland

THE MYTH of Psyche and Amor is generally cited as a woman's rite of passage. So, it was a rare pleasure to witness a male composer's sensitivity to the subject in a new work premiered Sunday by the San Jose Chamber Orchestra. Even more, Michael Ching's Psyche and Eros proved a remarkable synthesis of musical influences, always guided by a sure and original hand.

While many music lovers may be familiar with Cesar Franck's tone poem (and possibly the expanded choral version) on the Greek legend, more are likely to recognize the famous turn-of-the-19th-century Antonio Canova sculpture. Potent as the story is, it still gets short shrift in male-dominated societies. After all, the beautiful but mortal Psyche must endure all of the goddess Aphrodite's jealousy-inspired trials and tribulations while Eros, Aphrodite's son, plays out all his parts voyeuristically.

(Not to put too fine a point on it, but did you ever wonder where the idea of sex as an instrument of power, instead of love, was codified into mythology? Can you also imagine why a patriarchal society might feel a tad defensive about it? But I digress.)

In terms of vocabulary, invention and procedure, Ching's 45-minute commission takes something from such string orchestra masterpieces as Stravinsky's Apollo and Britten's Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge. Even Star Wars composer John Williams makes an appearance. There are abundant parallelisms, a la Debussy and Ravel, and such technical bits as sul ponticello (bowing close to the bridge), glissandi and pizzicato snapped like percussion. Not surprisingly, the main theme (and there are plenty of them) commands attention while the other lines quickly fall into a subordinate role. (In other words, there isn't much counterpoint, despite all the glitzy technique.)

But the technique is adroit, fluid and winningly integrated. Ching speaks music so well that he accommodates the text without a stumble. Actress/author/mythologist Margaret Olivia Wolfson, who wrote the libretto, performed the ancient story--and each of its many characters--with flair and vivid stage presence.

Ching made sure some of her remarks were intoned musically, without compromise to his score. While the music stands remarkably well on its own--rather like a string of pearls--a performance without Wolfson would diminish the entire effort. (By the same token, Ching might well be tempted to craft a concert suite without the transitional material.)

The score, energized by conductor Barbara Day Turner, blends tasty dissonances into an appealingly consonant texture. While many composers shy away from such sentimental ideas as "love music," Ching is plainly comfortable with Psyche and Amor in their act of love, sprinkling the scene with a spritz of harmonics.

That same sweet ease marked the concluding wedding scene. Without appearing programmatic, aggressive sheep, a raging goddess, mean-spirited sisters and Psyche's lament all reflected their flavors through the music. The latter moment supported a sorrowful violin solo played by concertmaster Cynthia Baehr. The 20-member ensemble filled the ever-lively concert room of Le Petit Trianon.

Things acoustic got even more opulent in the opening "Lento religioso" from Erich Korngold's Symphonic Serenade of 1947. Here, the string textures are more concentrated, more divisi. Indeed, for Korngold, this is unusually dense music, its supplicating hymnody infused with the dissonant chromatics of Schoenberg's Transfigured Night and, to an even greater degree, Strauss' Metamorphosen, which was written only two years earlier.

In the slow movement of his String Quartet, Op. 132, Beethoven gave thanks to "the deity" for his recovery from illness. Korngold is said to have written this piece in the wake of a heart attack. Both works display humility, as well as fresh vitality. But Korngold lingers in deeper shadows. In Le Petit Trianon's swelling sonics, one could imagine using fewer instruments to good effect. (A recent recording of Strauss' Metamorphosen argues convincingly in favor of the lately discovered sextet version of the thickly scored original for 23 strings.) To complement the "Lento," the players backed up in the work to the earlier Intermezzo, deliberately bowing near the bridge to get a scratchy effect.

At the evening's conclusion, Wolfson, Turner and Ching all took bows before an enthusiastic audience. Turner called attention to the 2000-2001 season of her string orchestra, promising a reprise of Ching's Piano Concerto, premiered and recorded in 1997 by the San Jose Chamber Orchestra.

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From the May 25-31, 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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