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January 24, 2006 (Review of "Mozart & Brahms")

Brahms brings gifts to Mozart Festival
Cleve inspires excellence

By Richard Scheinin, Mercury News
Yes, a Mozart Festival was happening over the weekend at San Jose's California Theatre, courtesy of Symphony Silicon Valley.  But the best thing about Saturday night's installment wasn't Mozart.  It was Brahms.

For whatever reason, conductor George Cleve programmed Brahms' Symphony No. 1 in C minor as the climax to this, the second of three festival programs.  (The third comes in March.)  He led the orchestra in a performance that was gutsy and fresh sounding, that really got at the bloodthirsty as well as the incredibly tender aspects of this warhorse.  It wasn't a rote performance.

It also wasn't a perfect performance; the orchestra doesn't play frequently enough to "do" perfect.  But that hardly mattered...The performance was filled with high tension and heart-piercing lyricism.  It strained and raged, plunged and subsided and, despite an obvious gaffe or two, was characterized by beautiful moments.    
The strings were vivid; richly rousing throughout.  Principal clarinet Michael Corner played the third movement's simple theme with clear, glowing fineness.  The music floated, practically levitating the sold-out house.

In fact, much of the program was filled with exceptional serenades, solos and assorted interludes from the winds – as well as the hard-working horns, who must have been ready to drop dead by 10:15 p.m. when the concert ended.

Then, after several sets of bows and an encore, Cleve looked out into the cheering audience and at last cracked a big smile.

This is a big homecoming for the conductor, who led the old San Jose Symphony for 20 years and is guest-conducting all three festival programs.  He is a minimalist: The smallest gesture can elicit a whopping response from the orchestra  -- an out-of-the-blue accent, say, on a single note.  It's fun seeing him in action with the hometown band, calling the shots…

…The program (which repeated Sunday afternoon) began with Mozart's Adagio and Fugue in C minor.  It isn't often played in its version for string orchestra (the string quartet version is more frequently performed), and to hear it was to be reminded of how unpredictable Mozart, Mr. Elegant, can be.

With the approach of the composer's 250th birthday this Friday, concertgoers are besieged with Mozart.  Using this bracing work as a concert opener was a smart, unexpected move.

…Next was Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 22 in E-flat major: lyrical and high-spirited, though it has a slow, lamenting second movement.  The soloist was Stephen Prutsman, a lucid and lucent player whose hyper-articulated passion-work fit the concert's gallant phases and whose butterfly-wings lyricism was just right for subdued interludes…He also wrote his own cadenzas (Mozart didn't leave any).  And for an encore, he played "Black Pearl," his own solo jazz piece, tinged with Jarrett and Evans.

Prutsman is an engaging artist. youthful and with an energized persona that clicks with audiences.  He lives in San Francisco, and the symphony shouldn't wait too long to bring him back.

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