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May 16, 2006 (Review of "Tango Fantastique")

Symphony winds up 4th season with ripsnorting 'Fantastique'

By Richard Scheinin, Mercury News
Symphony Silicon Valley completed its fourth season over the weekend: The South Bay's "new" orchestra is now a fact of life, playing to generally sold-out houses at the California Theatre. The skeptics have pretty much taken to the hills.

Saturday night, in the first of its two weekend concerts, the orchestra was on the money.

Its performance of Berlioz's "Symphonie Fantastique" was as ripsnorting as it was tender and sharply detailed. When the kettle drums rolled out their tribal rhythms at the top of the fourth movement, audience members may have wondered if they had wandered into some sort of '70s prog-rock interlude; Berlioz, who unveiled this piece in 1830, was a wild, creative spirit.

The orchestra tapped into that spirit, definitely, and guest conductor Paul Polivnick's role in making that happen was obvious. Saturday's concert marked Polivnick's seventh time on the podium with SSV; the connection he has forged with the musicians led to Saturday's fiery and rigorous gathering-in of Berlioz's treacherous cross-rhythms and false endings, his instrumental groans, shouts, memorable marching melodies and jewel-set cameos for soloists throughout the orchestra's ranks.

But Berlioz was only part of the program. It began with a light-footed reading of Debussy's "Petite Suite," a charmer. And its centerpiece was Astor Piazzolla's nuevo tango response to Vivaldi's "The Four Seasons."

The Argentinian's "Cuatro Estaciones porteñas" (a.k.a. "The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires") is a concerto for chamber orchestra and solo violin. Over the weekend, the soloist was Ju-Young Baek, the young Korean virtuoso whose Saturday performance was lithe and earthy and gave little indication of how prodigiously difficult the piece is to play… It was Baek's first public performance of the work, which is full of tango's on-the-cusp eroticism (appropriately, she wore a flaming red gown) and weaves quotations from Vivaldi's sunny and stirring ``Seasons'' into Piazzolla's more darkly heated climactic depictions.

…What does it sound like? Like tango, juiced by judicious dissonance and tipping its hat to the Baroque, but with Piazzolla's jaunty, earthy rhythms; Polivnick had the orchestra sounding as if creeping on tiptoe.

Baek's cadenza-like passages were loaded up with flicked whistling notes, machine-gun runs, double-stops galore and myriad slips and slides, sounding like tango-ized slide guitar. But she was at her best playing Piazzolla's alluring, sultry, long-lined melodies. (One seemed ever-poised to break out into "The Shadow of Your Smile.")

Likewise, the 22 players in the accompanying string orchestra were collectively assigned all sorts of ghostly scratched and snapped effects -- and pulled them all off neatly. But amid the sophistication, the seemingly simple effects were the ones most striking: principal double bass Bill Everett's perfect "walking" beneath Baek's arching lines.

It was fun discovering the Piazzolla. But Berlioz stole the show.

The nearly hourlong ``Fantastique'' can be shapeless and difficult to fathom when in the wrong hands. But from the outset -- softly loving melody, blooming chords, intensely tremulous strings, crouching rhythms -- Polivnick and his 80 players had it beautifully calibrated.

Berlioz was inspired to write the piece in 1827 after attending a Shakespeare performance starring a British actress named Harriet Smithson. He fell madly in love with her and … Saturday's performance paid passionate tribute to Berlioz's idealized love. Darting in and out of the orchestral tapestry with terrific standout ``cameo'' spots were four (count 'em) timpanists, SSV's newly fortified horn section (principal Meredith Brown recently joined the orchestra), principal clarinet Michael Corner and English hornist Patricia Emerson Mitchell, whose third-movement solos were pungent.

But, really, the whole orchestra sounded great. It returns in September for season No. 5.

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