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Opposites Detract

The soloists outshone the ensemble in SJ Symphony's mixed bag of Bruckner and Mozart works

By Philip Collins

MUSIC DIRECTOR Leonid Grin played off opposites at the San Jose Symphony's Signature Concert last Friday night. The sportive energy of Mozart--at age 19, with his fifth and final Concerto for Violin and Orchestra (in A major); and 11 years later, with the teeny yet equally dynamic Overture to The Impresario--seemed from a different planet than Bruckner's hour-plus Symphony No. 4. Bombast anyone?

Subtitled the "Romantic" by the composer, this ocean liner of orchestral might lives up to its name with a gushing temperament that holds steadily from beginning to end. It is among the most uplifting of Bruckner's symphonic tomes, and yet still, the path is a steep climb, laden with strife.

Like his other symphonies, Bruckner's Fourth is challenging to keep afloat at times. The lengthy developmental episodes are structurally obscure and prone to meandering. Yet the work's beautifully sculpted expositions and vibrant apotheoses pull the piece forward with gravitational force, and the orchestra managed such moments arrestingly.

In the Bruckner, as well as the Mozart pieces, the merits of individual players and inner-sectional work outshone the orchestra's ensemble efforts. The woodwind soloists' smoothly voiced exchanges in the first movement of the Bruckner brought out the symphony's warmer, more intimate shades to great effect. The second movement was highlighted by the viola's elegant melodic work and the lucid conversations between flutist Maria Tamburrino and hornist Wendell Rider.

The brass family came through indefatigably. Bruckner liked to slug it out with the brass, to a degree of intensity that might be equated with today's heavy-metal school. We're talking loud; The Guns of Navarone would sound like popguns next to Bruckner's brass chorales. I was glad to be sitting in the remote upper tier of the hall, where the decibel level was relatively contained. The vantage from this roost offered fascinating sight lines, not available from the floor seating, although audibility was compromised somewhat. Still, the brass's brilliant sheens spread to the farthest corners of the hall.

The horns also came through winningly. Their unison call to end the first movement and their lead-in to the third were particularly outstanding. Rider chalked up countless kudos with radiant solo work throughout. It was hardly surprising that the applause level doubled when Rider took his bows afterward; the audience knew well the source of those many glorious passages.

For Mozart's Concerto No. 5 for Violin and Orchestra, Grin hosted the exemplary artistry of Soviet violinist Vladimir Spivakov. The soloist's instrument sang beautifully in all its reaches--a dark-hued tone, rich as chocolate. Every note was tended to with doting attention, and melodies unfolded in gorgeous arches. The result was precious, though not always very Mozartean. Spivakov's shivering, tightly aimed vibrato upon each articulation--no matter how short--circumscribed the expressive range during the lighter episodes and allowed little relief for the sighing delicacies of the adagio.

Grin's direction abided by the soloist's melodic shapings while letting the orchestral carriage coast along in neutral. Tempo wavered, but nowhere to greater disadvantage than in the adagio, where tranquillity simply gave way to languor. The contained dramatic builds inherent in Mozart's accompanimental figures and harmonic progressions went by uneventfully, afforded only the most obvious dynamic considerations. Tempo resisted evenness, but to no apparent expressive purpose.

The finale, a rondo with minuet form, was a rhythmic jumble that fell out of step with itself time and again. Spivakov's spry rendering offered what few gratuities there were to be had, although alignment with the orchestra during the final "Turkish" section was tripped up repeatedly. The score's delicious mechanics were largely unobserved; impetus all but sacrificed.

The show's curtain-raiser, Mozart's Impresario Overture, was at least mediocre. As with the concerto, the motoric ingenuities of the score were taken for granted; it's fireworks unlit. The orchestra read through dutifully, and Grin indicated no desire for anything more. Why present so short a piece if not to mine its dynamicism? Stir up a little mischief? Accentuate the mercurial mind of its imaginative maker? Instead of pulling out the work's detailed plays of articulation, dynamics, tone color, the performance was spray-painted gray.

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From the November 21-27, 1996 issue of Metro

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