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Pinchas Power

Celebrated violinist Pinchas Zukerman kick-starts the San Jose Symphony season

By Philip Collins

THE SAN JOSE SYMPHONY got the new season off to a roaring start on Saturday night with a gala concert that blended star power and stylistic variety to captivating effect. Celebrated violinist and conductor Pinchas Zukerman performed in both capacities for the "Winter" movement from Vivaldi's The Four Seasons and delivered a stunning account as soloist in Bruch's Concerto no. 1 for Violin and Orchestra. Respighi's The Birds and Bernstein's Symphonic Dances from West Side Story added sugar and spice respectively to the bill.

Music Director Leonid Grin was regrettably absent due to a family emergency, but Assistant Conductor Yair Samet proved able and engaging at the podium in the maestro's stead.

In Bruch's emotionally turbulent concerto, Samet maintained close rapport between the orchestra and Zukerman, holding tight to his soloist's elastic phrase shaping without getting wrapped up in it. Samet's clear communication of the score elicited clean ensemble work from his players, making the utmost of the contrasts between the violin's rhapsodizing and the orchestra's primly stated episodes.

The ensemble work was unwieldy at times, especially in the first movement, where a lack of coordination in the cellos' pizzicato accompaniments was particularly distracting. Lapses in momentum made the finale a mixed bag; the alternations between Zukerman's driving solo work and the corresponding orchestral episodes rendered the latter feeble in comparison.

Samet kept the tempo up, but the strings' routine phrasing dampened the spirit markedly. Of course, Zukerman's shining tone was a tough act to follow. His instrument carried so brilliantly in relief against the fray that one might have thought it was being piped in over the PA system.

Zukerman's familiarity with and fondness for the concerto (Bruch's finest of three) were evident from the opening statement. Rather than dig for the passion right off, he coaxed it out in stages. Bruch's Gypsy fiddle lament perhaps had less earthiness to it than usual, but expression and nuance were still intact.

Zukerman's famed Apollonian precision and élan brought the work's spiraling lyricism to the fore. His intricate phrasing of the cadenza bridging the first and second movements was an intrigue unto itself. The slow portamento (slide) entrance was immediately seductive, and Zukerman's nimble displacing of accents and timbre shadings provided continual fascination without compromising the work's emotional integrity.

The galloping finale was a showcase for Zukerman's luminous sound and impeccable command of double-stops. The violinist's resonant handling of octaves and thirds beamed like sunshine, obliterating the woeful plaints and crises of the concerto's first two movements.

VIVALDI'S "Winter" was a bit out of season. The first movement was particularly premature--its sheer tempo contrasts were rough cut, and the rhythmic layers didn't align very convincingly. With his bow as a baton, Zukerman waved emphatically to get his tempi across, but the outcome was simply erratic.

Although the San Jose Center for the Performing Arts presents challenging acoustic problems for the harpsichord's delicate speaking voice, William Tracy's handsomely ornamented continuo playing came through surprisingly well. Mind you, the blend was far from satisfying, yet the performance gelled better with each movement. By the final allegro, the ensemble work was close knit, with the echo choruses breathing in smooth reciprocation.

As the evening's curtain-raiser, Respighi's The Birds was endearing at its best but understandably tentative. Samet led politely, mindful of melody and style while cautious not to delve too far into the dramatic realm. His approach benefited "The Dove" movement, which hosted a beguiling solo by principal oboist Pamela Hakl, and "The Nightingale," but made for an stodgy Prelude.

Bernstein's beloved Symphonic Dances from West Side Story provided a roof-raising finale. Fueled by a team of five percussionists plus timpani, Bernstein's rambunctious amalgam of streetwise rhythms and contemporary classical techniques couldn't have been more compelling. Ward Spengler's high-profile bongo solos were incendiary, and Robert J. Erlebach Jr.'s timpani hits punctuated the textures with balletic energy.

The brass work glowed overall, except for the horns, which have had better nights. Principal trumpet James Dooley offered shining contributions: riveting deliveries during the rumble scene, muted intensity in the "Cool Fugue" and reflective eloquence in the ballad "Somewhere," which was led into most memorably by principal cellist Peter Gelfand.

The evening was a promising start to the season, auspicious and grand but not without its intimacies. Aside from some moments of uncertainty early on in the program, the orchestra sang and sometimes roared with a collective might that heralds greater things to come.

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From the Sept. 11-17, 1997 issue of Metro.

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