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Classical Volunteers

The Palo Alto Philharmonic keeps community music alive

By Philip Collins

IN RECENT YEARS, community orchestras have been vanishing. With the dwindling of music programs in schools, there have been fewer classically trained musicians, and this once-thriving amateur medium has been going the way of the drive-in movie theater. Volunteer orchestras are now the exception rather than the norm, and congratulations are in order to the cultural community of Palo Alto for sustaining an exception to this unfortunate trend.

The volunteer-based Palo Alto Philharmonic, directed by Gideon Grau, wrapped up its ninth season Saturday night at Cubberley Theater with an engaging program of substantial musical content--most of it, anyway. Glinka's overture to Ruslan and Ludmilla was put over with graceful pep, and disarming virtuosity was offered in Bruch's Violin Concerto no. 1 in G Minor by 21-year-old violinist Rieko Kawabata.

Further instrumental wonderment came with Gang Situ's new Double Concerto for Erhu and Violin. Not only was it a delightful and novel composition, but the playing by soloists Jiebing Chen on erhu and Grau on violin was both sensitive and beautiful. Alas, though, poor Brahms' Variations on a Theme by Haydn suffered myriad casualties in a valiant, yet beleaguered reading.

Ruslan and Ludmilla opened the program with blunt dispatch. Grau kept his players moving relentlessly, hardly letting up for lyric inclinations and breathing space in order to keep energy at a premium. The tactic succeeded with the woodwinds especially. Their sectional work was snug as well as invigorated by phrasing that accented the piece's bustling agenda. Sonorities rang with a unanimity that was rarely equaled in the rest of the program.

The strings came through well also, with songful treatments of the overture's feature melodies. Although not in perfect tune, their renderings were spirited as well as heartfelt.

When Kawabata took the stage in her glowing red floor-length gown, one could not have suspected that such seasoned musicality was in store. Young firebrands are in great supply these days, but the talent this young woman brings to her instrument will never be mass produced.

Winner of the 1997 Palo Alto Philharmonic Soloist Competition, not to mention two competitions in Japan by the age of 12, Kawabata weds aptitude and passion in tasteful accord. Her performance of Bruch's familiar Violin Concerto bustled with freshness, as if she were creating the music on the spot.

Kawabata's Gypsy-style interpretation of the first movement's rapid passagework sizzled without burning the house down, for there was much music yet to come. Her intonation was sterling except for some of the wider double stops, and such instances were fleeting.

Bruch's melodies enjoyed thoughtfully applied shadings and phrasing that were equally rich in variety. Kawabata's account of the adagio's central theme was especially gorgeous. She voiced the violin's lower end with throaty viola warmth and spun out its upward climbs like a crooning diva.

The orchestra's contributions during the concerto were generally solvent--and sometimes even delightful. During the finale, principal flutist Darcy Mironov served up the first of what proved to be numerous refreshing solo episodes during the course of the evening.

The coordination between soloist and orchestra was mediated sternly by Grau. The conductor's unyielding tempi quelled Kawabata's attempted forays into rubato (freer time) during the second movement, which was perhaps for the best, as it kept the enterprise relatively unified.

Solo string virtuosity took on an entirely new perspective in Situ's Double Concerto, the evening's final work. The erhu (a two-string Chinese bowed instrument) adds a haunting dimension to the Western timbral palette, and the instrument's nasal tone and intense vibrato playing style create an effect that is as unearthly as it is poignant. Situ delved extensively into pairings of the violin and erhu, often featuring the two instruments in unaccompanied relief.

Chen's mastery brought the instrument's nobility to the fore, plumbing its depths with intense note bends and vibratos that recalled the impassioned playing of blues guitarist Buddy Guy. During the quieter episodes in the second movement, which drew from Chinese folk songs, Chen displayed the instrument's delicate lyric qualities.

Situ's scoring for the orchestra is sparse. The work's modest difficulties aptly suited the orchestra's capabilities, while also maximizing its resources to often brilliant ends.

Grau's programming of Situ's Double Concerto added a welcome twist to the concert's otherwise conventional fare, and the audience's warm reception of the piece testified to the viability of such departures.

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From the June 19-25, 1997 issue of Metro.

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