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[whitespace] The Texture of Ecstasy

The SJ Symphony found Shangri-La with Chinary Ung's 'Sakrava,' got gutsy with Bruch and breezed through Brahms

By Scott MacClelland

THREE CONSPICUOUSLY masculine visions faced the music last Saturday night at the San Jose Center for the Performing Arts. At least for those moments, men anxious about their virility in contemporary society could relax. The San Jose Symphony proved that Cambodia-born composer Chinary Ung and two 19th-century Germans, namely Johannes Brahms and Max Bruch, have as much prowess of intellect as manly fire in their loins.

Translating music notation into sound involves taking risks. The risk is highest with an unfamiliar piece. Getting Ung's densely textured Sakrava right demanded confidence from conductor Leonid Grin--and a leap of faith from musicians and audience members alike.

Fortunately, the eight-minute work, subtitled Evening Song for Orchestra, follows Ung's practice of fitting his ancestral yearnings into Western classical procedures, allowing the perspicacious ear to recognize and savor melodies and scales against a tapestry of exotic colors, particularly from an enormous percussion section.

At its most complex, the work is nearly visual, a sensual picture the composer might well have used to portray Shangri-La. Instezad, Ung, who spoke from the stage, cited two verses by Rumi, the 13th-century Persian Sufi poet, one setting the tone of the piece ("We are the space between the fish and the moon, while we sit here together"), the other its rising ecstasy ("Dance when you are broken open; dance in your blood; dance when you are perfectly free").

In the performance, that ecstasy gained intensity while the texture increased in complexity--punctuated by fanfares--then suddenly burst into satori, a place where peace is eternal, where time and boundaries disappear. (You'll recognize that place when you hear the serene sound--as if from a distance--of horn, piano, harp and strings.)

UNG EXPLAINED that he had just informed his family that he was done with composing when he got the call for Sakrava from Grin. Indeed, the work had been planned for last season, but the composer was not finished in time for its originally scheduled premiere. Happily, it was worth the wait.

Jaime Laredo, the well-known New York chamber musician (currently touring as a founding member of the Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio) then stepped up to Bruch's Violin Concerto in G Minor, itself one of the most masculine of 19th-century virtuoso thrillers.

Dotted rhythms in the outer two movements give the piece a gutsy, in-your-face character, and Laredo took it to the eager audience with a big penetrating tone. Moreover, he made space for himself, imposing his own idea of phrasing against Grin's often minimal tempo elasticity.

Even at that, conductor and orchestra made fine work of their equally brash outbursts. For all his technical prowess, Laredo indulges one quirk of playing, a tentative portamento--actually a slide followed by a step--most noticeable on the descent. The symphony's program annotator claimed that Bruch's reputation lay with his three violin concertos, Kol Nidrei for cello and the Scottish Fantasy. In fact, no one ever plays the two other concertos, much less the composer's Serenade for Violin and Orchestra and his three symphonies.

Limited elasticity took a greater toll on Brahms' Symphony No. 1 in C Minor, that great essay that occupied its composer for 20 years. While Grin gave the work much appeal, he ignored several opportunities to mine deeper into its potential grandeur, breezing through it a tempo. (By nothing more than elasticity of pace, a clever conductor could make a Schumann symphony sound like a greater work than one by Brahms.)

Grin would have done well to broaden the tempo at various points, for example the last clarion outburst on the brass choir before the final cadential sequence. Fact is, Brahms ran into his greatest difficulties in the final moments of his symphonies and concertos. It takes vision, imagination and skill to keep those moments--which often sound like little more than noodling--from diminishing the whole.

Despite a confident and sonorous reading by the orchestra, Grin opted more toward entertainment than substance. Even in that spirit, he made a nice play in opening the third movement affettuoso. In the performance, several solo players deserve praise, including concertmaster Robin Mayforth, hornist Wendell Ryder (who cracked a note in the first movement but soared through the big solo in the finale), flutist Maria Tamburrino, oboist Pamela Hakl and clarinetist Michael Corner.

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From the September 28-October 4, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

For more information about the San Jose/Silicon Valley area, visit sanjose.com.

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