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[whitespace] Symphony Manfully Tackles 'Manfred'

Tchaikovsky's ambitious tone poems got the full-force treatment from the SJ Symphony

By Scott MacClelland

THROUGH HERCULEAN endeavor, Leonid Grin and his San Jose Symphony painted a grandiose portrait of Manfred, the bewitched hero of Lord Byron's romantic epic poem. The walls of Flint Center rumbled Sunday with the force of full orchestral resources, punctuated with power-strokes on drums and metal percussion.

The Manfred Symphony was Tchaikovsky's most ambitious and, at 55 minutes' performance time, largest symphonic project. However, it is performed far less often than any of the composer's six numbered symphonies. (That he came to repudiate it seemed to have no impact on the audience, which gave the reading a standing ovation.)

In fact, as a programmatic symphony, the work seems a better fit for Berlioz. After all, the older, French composer had already gone down that road numerous times, notably in the ground-breaking Symphonie fantastique, the "dramatic symphony" Romeo et Juliette and in his own Byronic dalliance, Harold in Italy. Indeed, Berlioz was invited to take up Manfred--but refused due to age and ailment--by the man who would finally persuade Tchaikovsky, the Russian composer Mily Balakirev.

Because the work is essentially a set of four tone poems (which makes it substantively different from the numbered symphonies), it might well be considered a flattering tribute to Berlioz, even while Tchaikovsky's ultimate disdain grew from feelings of "cheating the public" by composing a program symphony. Tchaikovsky was also wary of being perceived to imitate Berlioz, not least for appropriating the French composer's use of an idée fixe, a theme to identify the tragic hero, used recurrently throughout.

Some of Tchaikovsky's fears, of course, come true in Manfred, but so does a ton of splendid music. And even though one gets a sense of self-consciousness in the writing, an unease at the composer's sublimation of his own instinctive creative egoism, there can be no denying the skill and craftsmanship brought to the task.

If Manfred is comprised of four discrete tone poems, they share material inventions with lucid effect and distinctive economy. After being introduced at the outset, the Manfred theme always recurs with startling surprise. Astarte undergoes strange and beguiling transformations. The great tragic declamation that closes out the first movement returns to end the entire work. And from a composer who despaired more than most over his lack of contrapuntal abilities, there is even a fugue in the last movement.

Despite his misgivings, Tchaikovsky was no stranger to the tone poem (he called them symphonic fantasies and overtures), having written nearly a dozen, including Romeo and Juliet, Francesca da Rimini and the 1812 Overture.

Neither was Rachmaninoff, who took more inspiration from Tchaikovsky than from any other Russian composer. Rachmaninoff's Isle of the Dead, for example, echoes Manfred's despair and the minor-key movements of the Pathetique symphony. Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 1 also plays off the example of Tchaikovsky. The work got a handsome performance in opening the Sunday concert, with a vivacious display of keyboard artistry from Nikolai Lugansky, winner of the 10th International Tchaikovsky Competition in 1994.

Here was magnificent piano technique, from a sotto voce filigree heard clearly despite a busy orchestra up to high-flying bravura virtuosity at fortissimo conveyed without pounding. The big cadenza of the first movement of this early work only whetted the appetite for a solo recital by this artist, a far more substantial musician than the pianist who previously appeared with this orchestra, Sergio Tiempo.

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From the October 28-November 3, 1999 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 1999 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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