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Dramatic Moments

Not all the excitement at the SJ Symphony was musical

By Philip Collins

A NUMBER of memorable things happened at San Jose Symphony's concert Friday. There were moments of greatness, mediocrity and crisis--even some strangeness, though the last case was irrespective of musical matters.

Pianist Jon Kimura Parker offered the most gratifying rewards. His performance of Beethoven's Concerto No. 3 in C Minor was as incisive as a diamond cutter's and so informed that musical purpose seemed spelled out in his hands. Parker endowed the finale's passagework with such unerring precision and lyricism that he conjured up memories of Glenn Gould's recordings of Bach rather than Beethoven.

The orchestra's role was no mean feat, either. Yair Samet, conductor of the San Jose Symphony's Youth Orchestra, pulled coherence, if not fire, from the ensemble. Samet conspired adeptly on the orchestra's behalf, while maintaining close alliance with the soloist.

And then there was the moment during the third movement when all the lights went out. It was for three seconds or so, though it must have felt closer to infinity for those playing. Afterward, I enjoyed watching the musicians snickering to one another--relieved that darkness lasted as briefly as it did, yet still shocked that it happened in the first place.

Shostakovich's Symphony No. 1 benefited from the orchestra's euphonic complicity, although what stood out most was the fine solo work that went into it. Principal oboist Pamela Hakl's rendering of the spacious solo in the lento deserved kudos as much for graceful artistry as unlimited breath supply. Assistant principal cellist Cheryl Fippen excelled in her coverage of solos in the last two movements; she had but one day's notice to fill in for Peter Gelfand.

Then there was the abysmal curtain-raiser, a sloppy read-through of Wagner's Prelude to Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. Disarray and blandness of rare proportion plagued the performance. Samet seemed uncertain of what he wanted, and the orchestra plowed through unbalanced and misaligned, leaving Wagner's intricate--and most familiar--agenda of tempi and intensities in sorry approximation.

As a result, the Beethoven, which followed, came in like a lamb, tentative instead of stirring. The orchestra's lengthy exposition had little of the dynamism that is necessary for setting the piece's atmosphere. At least technical matters were orderly, and cohesion gathered as the movement progressed. When Parker's entrance finally came about, Samet and company began to find their stride.

The largo, one of Beethoven's most tranquil orchestral movements, was delicately put. As in the first movement, it shined in stretches but didn't quite connect as an entity. Parker's treatment of the chordal phrases was melodic and beautifully voiced, smooth as a lake's surface. Samet elicited fine, mirrored utterances from the strings, pristine in tone, but rarely supported by sufficient dynamic scope. The mystery and strength underlining the movement's acquiescence remained untapped.

The third movement took off like a chariot race and never let up. It was clearly Parker's ball game, and his approach was thoroughly winning. Samet and the orchestra responded with stunning aplomb. Textures shone bright, and ensemble clicked resonantly. The strings' fugue was particularly fine--precise and pulsing with determination.

Good rapport was evident during much of the orchestra's performance of Shostakovich's Symphony No. 1. Samet held tight reign in the opening allegretto--allegro non troppo, where focus darted about mischievously between instrumental sections. The movement heralded buoyant ingenuity, echoing Prokofiev's influence while showing off young Shostakovich's precocious facility with the medium.

Flutist Carole Potter's and clarinetist Michael Corner's luminous high-end work were foremost among many fine solo contributions. The final tutti blasts of the movement disfavored the horns to a lamentable degree, but the energy and sound were exhilarating.

The second movement, a blistering allegro, brought William Tracey's crisp piano playing to the fore. The score offered only a hint of the cynicism that Shostakovich would later invest in movements of this kind. There was little melodic interest to speak of, either, save for repetitive chromatic zigzagging of the like found in circus music. The lento's salvations lay in the solos, for it was otherwise a turgid, drawn-out affair, once again melodically pallid and void of allure on both harmonic or contrapuntal terms. The fourth movement argued between flurries of bombast and reprisals of the prior movement's bleakness, ending much later than it should have, and so unconvincingly that the audience was uncertain of whether to applaud or not.

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From the October 24-30, 1996 issue of Metro

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