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October 31, 2005 (Review of "American Originals")

Orchestra conjures up a brave new world of symphonic jazz

By Richard Scheinin, Mercury News
Fighting for its niche in the cultural marketplace, Symphony Silicon Valley could hang on and play it safe, trotting out warhorses by Beethoven, Mendelssohn, and Dvorak and little else. This weekend it took a risk: It played symphonic jazz and it seemed all charged up. It was one of the orchestra's best programs yet.

Before Saturday night's first downbeat, the California Theatre's stage was as congested as crosstown streets at rush hour in Manhattan. A jazz quintet faced the audience. A few paces back stood guest conductor Paul Polivnick, with a woodwind quintet and a brass quintet seated in half-moon formation around him. Pushing back to the walls behind them were an additional 75 players, including a battery of percussionists.

Then came the music, bracing and bluesy, sharp-edged yet billowing with song. It was David Amram's ''Triple Concerto,'' a work that bridges the 74-year-old composer's lifelong commitment to jazz, symphonic music (think Stravinsky, Bartok, Hindemith), and so-called ''world music,'' especially from the Middle East. The three quintets are the ''soloists'' and Amram, a let's-go-crazy improviser, was originally to have been the pianist in the jazz quintet as well as the Pakistani flute soloist in the final cadenza.

He didn't make it to SSV's performances (the program repeated Sunday) due to another commitment; a jazz festival in Ireland was honoring Amram, whose résumé includes collaborations with Charles Mingus, Dizzy Gillespie, and Thelonious Monk. He deserves the honor. But his absence didn't matter much. This was Polivnick's fourth stint as guest conductor with the orchestra and he has clearly established a rapport with the players. With less than a week of rehearsals, he managed to tame this beast of a piece; the orchestra gave it a surging performance. And the soloists -- watch out.

Alto saxophonist Bill Trimble, in a farewell performance (he is leaving the area after 38 years as first-call saxophonist with SSV and the old San Jose Symphony), was beguiling: pearly-toned and blues-tinged.

Baritone saxophonist Aaron Lington was revelatory. He obviously relishes the beautiful, blustery bark of his instrument and his solos careened through the music, rubbing against the orchestra.

If there were any problems, it had to do with the California.

A mid-sized hall with a ''hot'' acoustic, it was at times so swamped with sound that hearing the work's intricacies was difficult. The playing seemed spot-on. Zipping solos rocked against one another in the woodwind and brass quintets, creating seesaw tension. The jazz rhythm section was on-the-money, helping the orchestra swirl through the jazz waltz and elegant, midnight-in-Manhattan melodies of the first two movements. They bear Mingus' mark, at once delicate and blustery.

The third movement is inspired by Egyptian and Armenian rhythm and melody, but pays homage to lots of traditions: South Asian, Celtic, klezmer, even American Indian. In the past, his Pakistani flute solos in this movement have been go-for-broke affairs -- happy, spirited showmanship. So you had to feel sorry for piccolo specialist Mimi Carlson as she walked on stage to take his place.

But no sympathy was necessary. Carlson filled the theater with wild over-blowing, buzzed notes, half-sung tones, and her own percussive accompaniment -- created by clacking the pads of her instrument's keys -- to the movement's dancing theme song. She was terrific.

After intermission, came music by Duke Ellington -- and a new conductor, Dennis Wilson, a virtuoso trombonist who spent years with Count Basie, Gillespie and others. Well-known locally for his work at the San Jose Jazz Festival, he was presumably brought in to lend idiomatic legitimacy to Ellington's breathtaking ''Black, Brown, & Beige.'' That 1943 suite is ripe with blues feeling, proud strutting rhythms, and dignified African-American church sounds.

...The program closed with Polivnick returning for Gershwin's ''An American in Paris.'' This one sparkled, mostly. Lit up with solos by concertmaster Robin Mayforth and principal trumpeter Jim Dooley, it sent the audience happily packing. Symphonic jazz -- not too much of a risk, after all.

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Supported, in part, by a Cultural Affairs grant from the City of San José