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October 03, 2005 (Review of "A Midsummer Night's Dream on the Waterfront About Beethoven")

Orchestra Opener Triumphs with the Tried-and-True
Fresh approach in the playing of Beethoven, Bernstein and Mendelssohn featured in season premiere

By Colin Seymour, Mercury News
Conductor Patrick Flynn's grandfatherly charm radiated a reassuring tone that helped Symphony Silicon Valley's fourth season get off to a strong start Saturday.

The orchestra that has risen from the ashes of the late San Jose Symphony continued to provide more value per concert than its predecessor, with lots of sparkling sounds from individual players and the orchestra en masse under charismatic direction from Flynn. The California Theatre program featured Beethoven's monumental Symphony No. 5.

…This concert, which began with three segments of Mendelssohn's music for ``A Midsummer Night's Dream'' and a symphonic arrangement of Bernstein's unexpectedly audience-friendly 1955 film score for ``On the Waterfront,'' was built for comfort, and successfully so.

It was possible to be cynical about this opening program going in because the Beethoven and Mendelssohn offerings were so tried-and-true. But by the time the orchestra was conquering the running passages of the ``Midsummer Night's Dream'' overture, oh, so smoothly -- the strings led by assistant concertmaster Christina Mok -- the playing was the thing that mattered. We still have a major league orchestra, an issue in doubt three years ago.

Flynn, in his fourth appearance among SSV's revolving roster of guest conductors, was never coasting. He worked an interesting nuance into the Mendelssohn material, making the heehaws of the play's Bottom/jackass character more forceful in the recapitulation than the first time around. When better orchestral balance was needed, Flynn waved one bony finger almost surreptitiously at the violins and got what he wanted.

Guiding listeners through the Bernstein work was a haunting theme, soulfully rendered by guest horn player Meredith Brown and later carried by several other stellar soloists and an eerie duet involving harpist Dan Levitan and flutist Maria Tamburrino. That theme dominates the work so much that this symphonic rendition is less an elaboration of the fragments left in the film than Bernstein apparently thought when he fleshed out this version in disgust with film editing.

But it also reminded us how much we're all beginning to appreciate Bernstein's importance as a composer as it supersedes his charisma as a late, great conductor.

SSV's virtuoso performances also reminded us how fortunate San Jose is to have most of the stars of the old symphony still here, many boosted by individual grants denoted in the program.

Flynn made the Beethoven challenging, and original, too, in the sense that Flynn claims Beethoven originally intended that the symphony be played at a faster tempo than we usually hear.

You could disagree with that and still like what we heard, though it was difficult to take in the full spectrum of the first movement at such a fast clip, and the andante second movement was a brisk walk indeed that didn't contrast enough pace-wise with the third movement. The transition from third movement to fourth was flawless, and this movement was paced well, with speed an asset at the triumphant climax where Fate, so much in question thematically in the Fifth, is met head-on in triumph.

Flynn's encore, William Walton's ``The Popular Song,'' from ``Façade,'' ensured the concert wouldn't be all review and nothing new. The audience clearly ate up the 1920s dance song's whimsical contrast to the Beethoven, a fittingly light dessert of which almost none present had previously partaken.

Still, the tried-and-true might have been trite without Flynn's imagination and elan. The guy even paid extra attention to ``The Star-Spangled Banner'' at the outset of the concert, conducting the ``rockets' red glare'' portion in legato contrast (which some audience members singing along ignored) to the bombast of the rest of the song. San Jose's affection for this craggy Englishman is more than justified.

He's the sort children love, so what a shame there were so few youngsters – perhaps a dozen – in attendance at the hospitable California theatre to hear music I so loved in the 1950s, when I played a 78-rpm version of Beethoven's Fifth incessantly and even had a cat named Felix Mendelssohn…

(Symphony note: 2000+ children attended two student matinee concerts led by Flynn on Monday, October 3.)

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