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October 01, 2005 (Review of "A Midsummer Night's Dream on the Waterfront About Beethoven")

Rigors Well Met

By David Bratman, Classical Voice
Now in its fourth season, its second in the restored California Theatre in San Jose, Symphony Silicon Valley is beginning to settle in. Rather than opting to stake the ensemble's collective personality on the glamour of a music director, SSV's management is continuing to present a variety of guest conductors. But they know a local favorite when they see one, so they brought in Patrick Flynn from the Inland Empire/Riverside County Philharmonic to open the season.

No flashy, San Francisco-style gala here — just a plain concert with solid, interesting music-making. Flynn's specialty is stripping layers of varnish off old warhorses — his Tchaikovsky's Fifth Symphony here last year was a notable reinvention of the work — and his most obviously challenging assignment for Saturday's concert was to employ his magic on the most standard classic of them all, Beethoven's Fifth.

Those whose reaction is "Oh no, not again" may have heard the work too often lately, or they might just never have heard Flynn conduct it. The challenge in performing the Fifth is to bring out the vitality, energy, and surprise in the work…

Crystal clarity
This was a strongly rooted interpretation that turned structural corners with clean efficiency, driven by particularly crisp playing in the lower strings. Like many conductors today, Flynn uses Beethoven's own brisk tempo markings, but he does not follow cut-down original-performance practices. The strings were at full strength, and Flynn even doubled the horns — using four instead of Beethoven's prescribed two — to ensure the sound would carry through.

The resulting full-bodied zest made a powerful and exciting performance without a trace of pomposity. The eerie reprise of the scherzo was enough to cause even a blasé listener to wonder what would happen next, and the following crescendo melted into the finale magnificently, without the slightest break or catch in tempo. The long coda's stamping insistence on C major is the most potentially enervating part of the work, but the tempo and a clear sense of forward motion drove it onward briskly, eliminating any sense of redundancy…

The centerpiece of the program
Impressive as the Beethoven was, the concert's really outstanding work was the Bernstein score for the 1954 film On the Waterfront. .. it functions as a single movement, a twenty-minute tone poem in the tradition of Liszt or Richard Strauss, serially integrating a variety of moods.

…Musically, the suite is the missing link between Aaron Copland — there are echoes of Billy the Kid, especially in the quieter transitional moments — and Bernstein's own West Side Story. There's "rumble" music that's a clear precursor of the later work, and the love theme nearly breaks into "Maria."

It took decades for European musicians to figure out how to play Copland with the proper American rhythmic verve, so Patrick Flynn, a cool if witty Englishman, might not have appeared to be the ideal conductor for a work of this kind. But he and the orchestra handled it excellently. A quiet theme for horn, well played by substitute principal Meredith Brown, ties the work together. There's some jazz influence here and there, notably in a few saxophone solos, but this performance emphasized brilliantly executed rhythmic exactitude in the fast sections and a warm but not overblown passion in the love music. The scenes tumbled by, all performed with smooth command.

True prodigy
The concert began, after the obligatory National Anthem, with some selections from Mendelssohn's A Midsummer Night's Dream…Lightness and gossamer are the usual approach to this music, but this performance was different: slowed down slightly, with a harsh and rough sound that displayed the inner voices of the score and brought out the rude and comic side to Shakespeare's play that's hidden in Mendelssohn's music but can be exposed by determined performers.

The orchestra was notably smoother in the Scherzo, the last-played of the pieces, and some of the roughness expressed itself in occasional falling-apart of the string filigree in the Overture and a few horn flubs in the Nocturne, so possibly part of this harsh sound may have been simply the performers warming up and learning to play together again after a summer off.

While not perfect, the Bernstein in particular showed again that Symphony Silicon Valley is an orchestra of both technical and interpretive mastery.

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