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He Got Rhythm

Sergiu Comissiona guides the symphony through its maiden voyage at the California Theatre

By Scott MacClelland

CONDUCTOR Sergiu Comissiona is said to have thought out loud backstage at the California Theatre, "Why am I here?" This wasn't, after all, a program that a European maestro could sink his artistic teeth into. But on the podium, the Romanian-born septuagenarian came up with the goods in Symphony Silicon Valley's debut program at the California last Sunday afternoon, a pageant of movie and show music designed to celebrate the venue's long history as a cinema palace. Comissiona especially "felt" the swing and syncopations of George Gershwin in the overture from Funny Face, Robert Russell Bennett's vivacious Porgy and Bess: A Symphonic Picture and, as an encore after long applause, music from Girl Crazy (a.k.a. I Got Rhythm).

Funny, isn't it, when an artist finds himself applying his talents to a program not in his blood or even at his intellectual level? Maybe that's why the old euphemisms "classical" and "popular" have given way to new ones, "cultivated" and "vernacular." Fact is, some of the best American musical talent today is applying "cultivated" disciplines to "vernacular" music. (And didn't Dvorák advise American composers to do it a century ago?)

Comissiona did what pros do: he gave skillfully phrased and shrewdly disguised direction to the orchestra, sparking a performance that took off in the second work on the program, the suite from Erich Korngold's score for the Errol Flynn romance The Adventures of Robin Hood. Here, the full range of the California's acoustics flowered with a warmth of tone not heard in the opener, Aaron Copland's The Red Pony.

The difference between the two relates to textures. Korngold wrote for traditional orchestral choirs (strings, winds, brass) while Copland favored a more pointillistic approach, flattering individual instruments, often in thorny combinations, that makes greater demands on the players. Put that together with the deterioration of orchestral discipline in this ensemble, and you have musicians more glued to their pages than released to express themselves, much less put their efforts across the footlights with confidence and authority. The Copland, as a result, sounded bright and edgy, but without resonance, or even much presence. (Indeed, the entire midrange of frequencies was noticeably squelched.) Issues like these are best addressed by a permanent music director who can make the necessary adjustments from program to program, including accommodating the theater's miscellaneous acoustic shortcomings.

Meanwhile, Korngold's orchestra was enhanced to Hollywood specs by Hugo Friedhofer and Milan Roder (as exhaustively documented by Bill Wrobel at his website). The gorgeous "Love Scene" made the most lasting impression, with seductive melodies on the strings, doubled in some cases by the winds, including saxophone soloist Bill Trimble who observed that he could not hear the violins from his vantage and hoped he was in sync. (He was.)

The stage at the California is small, and the acoustic shell is apparently expanded to its limits. The musicians were stuffed in, which means that late-19th- and 20th-century works calling for more players simply won't get programmed. When at its best, the orchestra was flattered by the hall. With a music director on the podium, it should get even better.

Symphony Silicon Valley's next concert takes place Oct. 30­31 at the California Theatre, with guest conductor Patrick Flynn. (408.286.2600)

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From the October 13-19, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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