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Choral Notes

The symphony shows off its vocal prowess in concert with SJSU Choir and Chorale at refurbished California Theatre

By Scott MacClelland

AN ODD-LOOKING program on paper turned out to be generously satisfying when Symphony Silicon Valley performed last Sunday under guest conductor Thomas Conlin. An obscure variations on "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" by Benjamin Britten prefaced Francis Poulenc's Gloria, and Schubert's Symphony no. 8 (Unfinished) was followed by scenes with chorus from three operas by Richard Wagner. As the symphony's first test of a choral collaboration in the California Theatre, it passed muster with colors flying.

In that regard, most impressive was the Wagner, with the orchestra below, on the extended stage, and the chorus above, on risers that took them almost to the top of the available space. The combined concert choir and chorale from San Jose State University gave further affirmation of the California's acoustic efficiencies, sounding warm, full-bodied and almost effortless in unaccompanied passages from Tannhaüser and Die Meistersinger. With the orchestra full on, in these as well as the wedding march from Lohengrin, they had to work harder to hold their own. In the Poulenc, the unique orchestration—with its piquant dissonances—gave the chorus an opportunity to show off its skill with an entirely different style of music, one with odd syncopations and awkward voice leading, and credit going to director Elena Sharkova. The single soloist, soprano Tonna Miller, made an indelible impression, flowing seamlessly through angular melodies full of leaping intervals, the sort of writing that would easily reveal difficulties across registers in a less gifted singer. Miller is a rising star, looking every bit the youthful soubrette, but with a formidable and mature instrument. She made the challenge sound easy. For his part, Conlin emphasized the dancing rhythms of the piece, recalling as it does the influence of the French Renaissance and Baroque.

Throughout the program, Conlin demonstrated a clean, clear style that assured a performance in kind. A podium veteran, he communicated with authority and a solid command of dynamic and rhythmic control in a widely contrasting repertoire. In the one place where artistic imagination faced its big opportunity, however, he played it straight. Schubert's miraculous unfinished symphony invites interpreters to go beneath the obvious, to disclose the work's internal contradictions that nuance can illuminate. For example, the different melodic events that open the first of the two movements can be set against one another, a subtle push/pull that reveals a deeper layer of conflict. The second movement (which would have been the "slow" movement had Schubert completed the piece) goes out on limb after limb of invention, with myriad interpretive possibilities. Conlin did absolutely professional work here, but left little imprint of himself as an interpreter.

The Britten piece, titled Men of Good Will, is a slight effort that probably shows off its economy of means—a well-known vanity of the composer—better in its original chamber orchestra version. Arranged for full orchestra, it sounds inflated and for that reason banal.

Conlin's indulgent remarks prior to the Poulenc, Schubert and Wagner were gratuitous and, for anyone capable of reading Beth Fleming's well-written program notes, superfluous.

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From the December 15-21, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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