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[whitespace] Due to the Devil

The SJ Symphony did right by Liszt's sprawling 'Faust Symphony'

By Scott MacClelland

NO COMPOSER in 19th-century Europe won success in his lifetime without paying the devil his due. Fortunately, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe supplied artists of all stripes the perfect diabolical vector with his fresh telling of the ancient Faust legend. The repertoire would be much the poorer without the Mephistophelian inspirations (and redemptions) of Schubert, Berlioz, Liszt, Schumann, Gounod and Boito, not to mention Beethoven, Wagner and Mahler.

Liszt paid the devil more than most. Notwithstanding a mammoth San Jose Symphony commitment last Friday to the Hungarian composer's A Faust Symphony, the 70-minute work seemed even longer than it is. While conductor Leonid Grin could have supercharged the performance with exaggerated tempo changes and dynamic contrasts, he would have done so at his peril. For all of his highly organized structures, the composer commits the sin of housing a $25 idea in a $50 package.

Nevertheless, the work bears important historic significance that, by occasional revival, adds valuable perspective to the musical currents of its time. Grin, therefore, did right by the sprawling, sometimes dawdling score. And so did his orchestra, whose most cherished moments occurred in the otherwise long-winded second movement, Gretchen, in which the naive virgin picks petals--"He loves me, he loves me not"--from a blossom that never seems to run out of them.

Oboe, bassoon, flute and clarinet solos were complemented by first-chair string players in a uniquely delicate garland that sets an intimate, lugubrious mood in which to unfold the blissed girl's melody. The origins of that mood go back to the first movement, Faust, which gives the "hero" a sinuous, sinister chromatic theme that describes a 12-tone row (evidently for the first time in a published work).

The Faust theme haunts the entire work with an ambivalence that robs it of any conventional sense of directionality and resolution (until a Chorus Mysticus is served up gratuitously at the very end). Despite the dodecaphonic innovation and skillful manipulation of forms, Liszt never delivers a convincing knockout punch.

Heroic outbursts in the first movement sound artificial, even cheap. In mocking the earlier Faust and Gretchen themes, the last movement, Mephistopheles, develops the most adventure, even though the protagonist never gets a tune he can call his own.

Men's choirs of Santa Clara and San Jose State University intoned the final, short verse, with tenor Keith Alexander bravely but handsomely asserting a few lines of his own. Most memorable, however, were the many instrumental solos that imparted real dignity to the inflated opus.

THE PROGRAM opened with a hilarious performance of Mozart's Concerto in C, K. 467. Belgrade-born pianist Aleksander Serdar proved that the work can survive all manner of mischief without damage. He assaulted the first movement like Beethoven in a snit, powering ahead of Grin and his orchestra at every turn and, with brilliant finger work, inflicting a clenched-jaw impatience from beginning to end.

Then came the ever-popular andante (made famous in the film Elvira Madigan). Here Serdar floated off into a reverie of ineffable magic, as sensitive as it was disingenuous, his mouth agape, his glassy gaze lifted to bathe in the wash of overhead spotlights. This was gorgeous piano-playing, exquisitely tasteful and completely insincere. Oscar Wilde would have loved it.

To their credit, the wind and string players did love it sincerely, without a hint of the pianist's guile. In the finale, Serdar exploited every repetitive passage for parody, using Mozart's own notes to make fun of Mozart. Sacrilege? On the contrary: Mozart invites it. In the right hands--these hands--it can sound utterly spontaneous and maddeningly, deliciously arch.

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From the October 26-November 1, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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

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