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Picture Imperfect

The music outstrips the slide show at the SJ Symphony

By Philip Collins

Audiences at the San Jose Symphony's concert last weekend were treated to an unusual twist. The theme was America the Beautiful, and the program featured a variety of U.S.A.-bred scores by Copland, Gershwin, Piston and Ives. But that wasn't the twist--photochoreography was.

Photochoreography is actually a fancy term for a slide show. Photographer James Westwater (self-proclaimed creator of Photochoreography) projected slides to accompany three pieces by Copland--Appalachian Spring, Fanfare for the Common Man and a three-part suite made up of selections from the opera The Tender Land and the film score The Red Pony. The remainder of the program--Piston's Suite from The Incredible Flutist, Ives' Finale from Symphony No. 2, and Gershwin's Overture to Oh, Kay!--got by without photographic accompaniments.

Westwater's slides of rural Americana were projected on tri-panel screens that descended from the flies and extended the width of the stage. The scale was grand, the imagery self-consciously breathtaking and cliché-ridden--apple pie from the frozen-food section.

The orchestra performed expertly nonetheless. Despite considerable challenges, the ensemble worked industriously under the baton of San Jose Symphony Youth Orchestra Director Yair Samet, mustering commendable performances throughout. There were a goodly number of transcendent moments to boot.

Appalachian Spring was the evening's most substantial entry, and unsurprisingly, it inspired Westwater's best work. The ballet's score's clearly mapped storyline gave the photographer something to build upon. Samet's interpretation was especially gentle, attuned to the score's heartland and complimentary to Westwater's predominantly pastoral imagery.

Copland's deft talents at orchestration glimmered via the orchestra's strong sectional rapport and sophisticated solo work. Fleeting discrepancies and a tendency among the violins to squeal at heights proved incidental distractions compared to the larger problems brought on by ineffective amplification.

For reasons unclear, Appalachian Spring --and not other selections--was miked hot and unevenly, making the tutti (full-orchestra) sonorities sound rough around the edges. The brass--farthest upstage and on risers--sometimes dragged behind the strings, which were down stage and on the floor. Heavy amplification soured the work's prominent piano part (played expertly by Henry Mollicone) with a distorted timbre.

As already noted, the photographic element had its charms but was by and large a washout, innocuous at best. Westwater's concentration on flowers, landscapes, rural folk and farm machinery was in itself not problematic, but his chosen perspectives of each were, simply put, mediocre. The technical flaws that cropped up in numerous shots--underexposures and poor focusing primarily--undercut the collaboration further.

First up, Fanfare for the Common Man raised the curtains mightily. Its terse, granitelike bursts of trumpet and horn were initially shaky, but things soon clicked into place. As in Appalachian Spring, Samet resisted the obvious: bombast. Instead he drew out melody and inner strength, in keeping with the work's unique chemistry of introspection and grandeur.

Westwater's photographic responses were acceptable on surface terms but more geared to the commonplace than the common man. One would never have guessed by Westwater's choices for imagery--Mount Rushmore, the Washington Monument and the graves at Arlington cemetery--that Copland was a pacifist with strong leftist sympathies.

Westwater's Wilderness Suite was based on a compilation of excerpts from Copland's The Tender Land and The Red Pony. It was a delight to hear highlights from these rarely performed pieces, though as a whole, they made an unconvincing suite.

The three featured works of Gershwin, Ives and Piston, which weren't embellished by Westwater's roving lens, enjoyed favorable playing conditions. However, the abstract graphic designs projected behind the orchestra--resembling snowflake silhouettes at a junior-high dance--were no help, either.

Gershwin's Overture to Oh, Kay! flew. Samet offered a breezy lead that swung with the composer's grooves. The strings burned and sumptuous trysts between the woodwinds and brass voiced Gershwin's embracing melodies.

A hugely whittled-down version of Piston's ballet score, The Incredible Flutist offered meager digs of the piece and its author's range, while Ives' barn-burning Finale to Symphony No. 2 showed the composer in his most well-behaved, yet lively moments.

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From the Nov. 30-Dec. 6, 1995 issue of Metro

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