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Vista's Vision

The Nova Vista Symphony proves that community orchestras aren't always just amateur affairs

By Philip Collins

'WE PLAY for the love of it," a violinist said to me yesterday. We were both on our way out of the Smithwick Theater at Foothill College following a matinee performance by the Nova Vista Symphony. I'd asked him if there'd been any pay involved. It hadn't really sounded like it, but it wasn't all that obvious, either. The orchestra had pulled through a tough program pretty well, and it's lamentable how often the professional units disappoint.

With a roster of 59 players and a devoted core group of listeners, this Sunnyvale community orchestra provides an ongoing outlet for avocational music-makers and select soloists, sometimes even area composers. Much of the programming is more stimulating than what many professional ensembles offer. Sunday's audience of 200 or so responded quite appreciatively to Nova Vista's roughshod-to-competent readings of works by Revueltas, Weber and Brahms.

Music Director Emily Ray's programming was anything but treadmill. Silvestre Revueltas' 1937
Redes Suite, Part I, made a spicy, rarely heard curtain-raiser, and Weber's poetic Clarinet Concerto No. 2 is hardly overplayed. Better still was the virtuosity of guest soloist Mark Brandenburg, an outstanding clarinetist whose playing provided a glowing centerpiece to the program.

Brandenburg--principal clarinetist for Opera San José and faculty member at UC­Santa Cruz--gave a supple, richly toned performance. Beautiful as his playing was, Brandenburg's instrument veered toward sharpness in the first movement, though it proved to be only a mild distraction.

Brahms' Symphony No. 4, which concluded the program, turned out to be a miscalculation. It is a big bite for any orchestra and definitely more than this group was ready for. An applaudable effort, but pained, it was especially frustrating, considering how well this orchestra could shine with less formidable material.

The Revueltas enjoyed a rich voicing from the strings in its robust opening section. The violins connected particularly well. As the program continued, the discrepancies in intonation and rhythm between the front and rear stands became more marked--especially in the high-reaching lines of the Brahms. Concertmaster Kerry Borgen, however, led her section with clear, strong playing and abundant finesse.

The cellos' accompanimental work slipped in and out of synchronization throughout the program, and their figures in the slower episodes tended to bog down. Matters of rhythmic underpinning are troublesome for all but the best orchestras, and they are in need of attention with Nova Vista as well.

More than once, Ray let tempo and energy wane during quieter episodes--understandably a huge habit to counteract with amateur ensembles. Eliciting coherence from a community orchestra is far more difficult than it is with experts. Ray's demeanor on the podium was straightforward and understated. She maintained a clear beat but exercised little expressive detail.

More attention to dynamic shape and punctuation would've certainly helped the orchestra's rhythmic issues. Still, judging from the musicians' hearty applause for her at the conclusion, it's a good bet that her rapport with players in rehearsals is encouraging, and her efforts instructive.

THE REMAINING programs of the season look at least as interesting as Sunday's. The next concert, Jan. 19, boasts hornist Bruce Luttrell in Atterberg's Concerto for Horn, along with Bernstein's Overture to Candide and Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake Suite. A collaborative concert in March with the San Jose Symphonic Choir and mezzo-soprano Carla Rae Cook featuring a commissioned premiere of songs by local composer Craig Bohmler, a cantata by Henry Mollicone of the Santa Clara University faculty and two excerpts from Verdi's Il Trovatore promises to be especially intriguing.

Parking isn't free on Sundays, so a handful of quarters is a necessity, and Smithwick Theater, nestled amid countless identical classroom units, isn't easy to find.

Despite those difficulties, this is an endeavor worth supporting and capable of making real music. Amateur orchestras once flourished, and if Nova Vista Symphony is an indicator of current trends, we may yet see a renaissance of such community enterprises again. (For upcoming schedule information, call 408/245-3116).

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From the November 7-13, 1996 issue of Metro

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